By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson
MUSKEGON – Businesslike.
The undefeated Big Reds, ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 2, defeated Holland 47-6 in their pre-district game, then downed Zeeland West 55-20 in last week’s district championship game.
Muskegon has outscored its 11 opponents by a startling margin of 603-78 this season. Nine of the Big Reds’ games have been played with running clocks in the second half, because they led by at least 35 points after halftime.
Fairfield said his players are mentally locked in because many of them played in last year’s D3 state championship game, which the Big Reds lost 29-28 in a last-second heartbreaker to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
“They have unfinished business,” Fairfield said. “What they’ve accomplished so far has already been done (by previous Muskegon teams). What they haven’t done is win a state championship. They are very aware of that. They are reminded every day by the community and the media.
“You can only hear that so much, and it makes you stay focused.”
But the deeper the Big Reds go in the playoffs, the more dangerous their opponents will be. That will certainly be the case on Saturday, when Muskegon meets up with No. 5 DeWitt in regionals at Grand Haven High School at 1 p.m.
The Big Reds are playing at Grand Haven for the second straight week due to sloppy field conditions at Hackley Stadium. The winner will advance to the state semifinals.
DeWitt is no stranger to the state playoffs. The Panthers have qualified for the postseason every year since 2006, and 16 of the past 17 seasons.
They advanced to the 2013 Division 3 state finals, where they lost to Zeeland West 34-27.
Last year they had something in common with Muskegon – a loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, which came in regionals, 35-28.
“They’ve won 12 straight conference championships,” Fairfield said. “They haven’t lost a conference game in 11 years. They get in the state semis or finals just about every year. They were one or two plays away from beating St. Mary’s last year.
“We’re not just playing an experienced playoff team. That’s a hungry team that believes they should have won last year. It should be a heck of a game, a great challenge. It would have been a great state final.”
This year DeWitt is 10-1. The Panthers opened their season with a 33-30 loss to Grand Rapids Christian. They’ve won everything since then, including a revenge victory in the first round of the playoffs over GR Christian (42-10) and a district final win over Cedar Springs last week (36-12).
The Panthers are dangerous through the air and on the ground. They have amassed 2,053 yards passing with 33 touchdowns and 2,508 yards rushing with 27 touchdowns.
Dewitt quarterback Blake Garfield is one of the top passing quarterbacks in the Lansing area with 29 touchdown throws.
His favorite target is Noah Koenigsknecht, who had more than 700 yards receiving with 12 touchdowns in the regular season.
The Panthers reportedly rely on several different running backs, including David Locher and Darron Weber.
Dewitt can clearly put up points, but the Panther defense will have a real challenge trying to keep the Big Reds out of the end zone.
Muskegon is led by senior quarterback La’darius Jefferson, who may be the best dual-threat QB in the state.
He has amassed 1,555 yards on the ground on 145 carries with 23 touchdowns. He’s completed 65 of 110 passes for 1,103 yards with 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
He’s done all that despite spending considerable time on the bench in the second half of blowout victories.
“If we had continued to let him carry the ball he probably would have broken every state record there is,” Fairfield said. “We’ve been kind of holding him back, but this is his time, and he’s playing with an attitude.”
If Dewitt somehow finds a way to slow Jefferson on the ground, the Big Reds have a slew of very good backs who would probably be featured runners at any other school.
They include Clinton Jefferson Jr. (740 rushing yards, 9 touchdowns), Lonnie Clark Jr. (709 yards, 12 touchdowns), Davion Mccall (526 yards, 6 touchdowns) and three others who have rushed for at least 100 yards this season.
Clinton Jefferson Jr. is also the team’s top receiver with 22 receptions for 361 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s followed by Lamarion Sherrill, who has 12 receptions for 206 yards and two touchdowns.