By Nate Thompson

GRAND HAVEN – The Muskegon Big Reds endured a week of frigid outdoor practices, including a bone-rattling Thursday evening at Grand Haven High School, when temperatures dipped to 17 degrees.

But the way the Big Reds dominated all phases of its Division 3 regional championship game against DeWitt on a very cold Saturday afternoon, the preparation was obviously worth it.

Muskegon scored on its opening three drives, and its defense forced the Panthers’ high-powered offense into six turnovers, in an eye-opening 49-0 victory.

Muskegon, now a perfect 12-0 on the season, advances to next weekend’s Division 3 state semifinals against fellow unbeaten Battle Creek Harper Creek at a site yet to be determined.

Clinton Jefferson Jr. runs away from No. 28 Quentin Hall after making the catch to the Muskegon touchdown. Photo/Jason Goorman

Big Reds junior cornerback Willie Shanks sparked the shutout with three interceptions, and in the process established a new single-season school record with 10 picks … and counting.

He actually set record with his ninth interception, a 34-yard pick-six in the second quarter that gave the Big Reds a commanding 35-0 lead.

“(The shutout) surprised me a lot,” Shanks admitted after the game. “I didn’t think we’d get a shutout, because we thought they’d pop one on us at first, but we shut them down.

“We had a great scout team practice over the week,” he added. “It was so cold, so we drilled it, every play (of DeWitt’s), we drilled it and drilled it.”

Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said it was a difficult week of practice, not only because of the weather, but also because DeWitt’s game tape showed a large variety of passing plays that the Big Reds had to prepare for.

To try to shift his players’ focus away from the cold, Fairfield said he rid himself of his sweatpants, shoes and coat during practice to prove that its mind over matter when playing in frigid weather.

Muskegon’s No. 23 Romel Beasley, No. 44 Eli Jackson and No. 35 Billie Roberts get ready to collapse on Dewitt’s No. 3 Blake Gatfeild. Photo/Jason Goorman

“I think I was getting ready for that show ‘Naked and Afraid,’” he joked.

Fairfield’s tactics obviously struck a chord with his players, who owned Dewitt from start to finish.

The Big Reds’ dominating offensive line paved the way for a quick start. Muskegon rumbled 70 yards on 13 plays on its opening drive, which was capped by a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback La’darius Jefferson.

The Big Reds went 65 yards on five plays on their next series, which was capped by another one-yard Jefferson score.

“I try to score quick to show how explosive we are,” Fairfield said. “But I was happy to see us just control it and get big chunks. We minimized penalties and didn’t have turnovers. That’s what championship teams have to do at this point. They hang on to the ball.”

The Big Reds’ third series ended much quicker when senior wing back CJ Jefferson took a reverse and scampered 23 yards to the end zone, putting Muskegon up 21-0 after one quarter.

La’darius Jefferson attempted just two passes on the day, but one was a perfectly-placed strike to CJ Jefferson over the middle for a 60-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.

Shanks then ended DeWitt’s next two drives by picking off junior quarterback Blake Garfield, with 7:42 and 5:50 left in the second quarter. He returned the second interception for a touchdown.

Muskegon’s 35-0 lead at halftime led to a running clock in the second half. But the Big Reds still managed a 40-yard touchdown run by Davion McCall late in the third quarter, and CJ Jefferson had Muskegon’s second pick-six of the day early in the fourth.

Muskegon gained 356 yards of total offense, compared to 164 for Dewitt. yards of total offense. La’darius Jefferson led the ground game with 121 yards on 24 carries.