By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Big Reds have no intention of being fooled by Farmington Hills Harrison’s record.
The Hawks are 10-3 on the season, and some people might figure they will be easy fodder for the 13-0 and undefeated Big Reds in Saturday’s Division 3 state championship game at Detroit’s Ford Field at 7:30 p.m.
But Farmington Hills Harrison has been good at football for a very long time, and plays a very tough regular season schedule.
“They lost to Clarkston by 11, and they’re playing for the Division 1 state championship this weekend,” said Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield. “They lost to East Grant Rapids, which was 9-0 (in the regular season). They lost to Birmingham Groves, a team that was in the Division 1 playoffs as well.
“Records mean nothing at this point in time. It’s a one-game opportunity for a state championship.”
A quick look at Harrison’s playoff history is enough to make any opponent take the Hawks seriously.
Farmington Hills Harrison has won 13 state football titles, more than any other school in Michigan history. The Hawks have appeared in 17 state championship games, most recently in 2010, when they defeated Lowell 38-20 in the Division 2 finals.
The Hawks are led by legendary coach John Herrington, who has been on the job for 48 years and is the only head varsity football coach in school history.
Herrington has a career record of 434-106-1. He became the winningest coach in state history in Octoberf when Harrison defeated Berkley 39-0 to give Herrington his 431st win, passing former Brother Rice head coach Al Fracassa.
Herrington will look to running back Roderick Heard to lead his team Saturday night against the vaunted Big Red defense.
Through the regional final, Heard had run for 1,321 yards and 22 touchdowns on 191 carries for a 6.9 yard per carry average.
When the Hawks decide to throw on Saturday, they’ll rely on the arm of quarterback Noah Hendricks, who threw for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns on 72 of 118 passing through the regional finals. Ovie Oghoufo led all receivers through regionals with 479 yards and five touchdowns on 30 catches for a 16-yard per catch average.
Despite their three losses, the Hawks have outscored their opponents 406-162 this season. They reached the state finals by beating Warren Fitzgerald (45-14), Warren Woods-Tower (33-0), Linden (34-21) and Riverview (21-0) in the playoffs.
“They have confidence right now,” Fairfield said about Harrison. “They have some serious athletes with some nice swag about then. We will have to stay toe-to-toe with them”.
The Big Reds have done more than respect and prepare hard for all their opponents this season. They’ve also paid particular attention to their own performance.
That started immediately after last season’s 29-28 loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the Division 3 state championship game.
The coaching staff watched game film and realized that if it hadn’t been for a series of mistakes during that game, the heartbreaking loss, which occurred when St. Mary’s scored a touchdown with four seconds left, might have been avoided.
The coaches came up with their “Little Things Matter” motto, and have preached it to the players for nearly a year.
“Coach Poole came up with that as soon as we got back and watched the game film,” Fairfield said. “It wasn’t one play. There were 12 to 15 plays in there that had an impact on the outcome.
“We had them on a third and 15 and third and 16and they got us on a draw. We were out of position both times. There was an interception right before halftime. There was a fumble when we were driving.
“We just missed a sack on third and six. Their quarterback scrambled, got the first down, spiked the ball, then threw the game-winning touchdown.
“We have reminded ourselves that there are a ton of little things you have to do that matter. Everything we have done since last season, from winter to summer to fall, has come with the same message – that’s a little thing, but it matters.
“I think the kids have bought into that, and we’ve been able to minimize those little things.”
So far the focus on detail has worked wonders for the Big Reds, who have outscored their opponents 694-78 this season.
Muskegon reached the finals with a 42-0 victory over Battle Creek Harper Creek in last week’s semifinals. A week before that the Big Reds swamped Dewitt 49-0 in the regional finals.
Muskegon hurts opponents with a multitude of weapons on both sides of the ball.
The Big Reds are led by all-everything, dual-threat quarterback La’darius Jefferson, who has rushed for 1,850 yards and 29 touchdowns and thrown for 1,205 yards and 21 touchdowns.
They have several other dangerous runners, including Lonnie Clark Jr. (877 yards, 13 touchdowns), CJ Jefferson (797 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Davison McCall (600 yards, seven touchdowns).
The Big Reds tend to keep the ball on the ground, because they can do that and still be very successful. But they have several dangerous receivers, including CJ Jefferson with 24 catches for 463 yards and 10 touchdowns and Lamarion Sherrill with 12 catches for 206 yards and two TDS.
Defensively, Muskegon is led by Ali-Vantaa Wallace with 91 tackles, Eli Jackson with 64, Paul Riley with 52 and Tender Evans with 51.
Willie Shanks Jr. has 10 interceptions this season, which is a new school single-season record. He has produced half of Muskegon’s interceptions this season.
Fairfield admits that it’s occasionally challenging to coach a team with so much individual talent.
“There are going to be some competitive things going on (between players) that you have to monitor and manage,” the coach said. “But when it comes to playing, these kids love it. I’m excited to see what happens on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Fairfield doesn’t believe his team will feel any extra pressure, despite the fact they will be trying to break a well-known losing streak.
The Big Reds have lost their last four state championship games, in 2016, 2014, 2013 and 2012.
“Some people might think there will be pressure, but this is who we are – we’ve been here before,” Fairfield said. “If the last four (Muskegon teams in the finals) had won, now that would be pressure.”