By Nate Thompson
It started in the sticky-hot summer months of July and August, when the Muskegon Big Reds embarked on a mission to establish themselves as one the best teams in the illustrious history of Muskegon football.
It came to fruition three months later, on Saturday night at Ford Field in Detroit.
Head coach Shane Fairfield saw the potential for great success early . He said in late August that this Big Red squad had more talent on paper than last year’s team, which included three Division 1 college recruits, and came seconds away from winning the Division 3 state championship game.
Of course football games aren’t won on paper, and preseason hype can often be grossly overstated. But Fairfield kept his team focused on results, and the result was great success.
From Day 1, Muskegon played like a team on a mission. The Big Reds allowed just 52 points throughout the regular season. Their only real test came in the Week 8 showdown at Mona Shores, when they fought off a determined Sailors squad for a 35-24 victory.
Most of the team’s games were defined by running clocks, with their offense scoring 50 or more points in seven of their nine regular-season contests.
Looking top to bottom on the Big Reds’ roster, it was difficult to find holes or weak spots, unless you were really nitpicky.
The team had the best offensive line I’ve ever seen at the high school level. An example of their dominance came on the Big Reds’ opening play against Dewitt in the regional championship game a few weeks ago.
The Panthers featured a big defensive nose tackle – 285-pound senior Zach Shantry – but he was driven back five yards like he was on ice skates with a combo block by center DeAndre Mills-Ellis and guard Marquis Cooper.
The O-line was led by bookend tackles Anthony Bradford and A.J. Reed, who will both be playing in Division 1 programs soon. Reed is already committed to Penn State, and Bradford is receiving recruiting interest from across the country.
Both boys are mammoth, like the entire line.
Having five immovable objects playing in front of him help transform senior quarterback La’darius Jefferson into one of the top overall players at his position in the state. Plain and simple, Jefferson did what was needed of him, and often a lot more.
As a true game-changer, he rarely made any costly turnovers, despite carrying the ball so often. Built like a fullback, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder routinely plowed his way through opposing defenses. He was at his best in the state championship game, when he turned in a 245-yard, four-touchdown performance.
He showed that he’s more than capable of playing quarterback in the Big Ten, which is what Michigan State (and perhaps some other schools) has in mind.
Jefferson’s strong passing arm was like a Corvette in a Michigan winter – nice, but not needed. He was rarely called on to throw the ball. With so many dangerous weapons in their run game, Fairfield was smart to never force the pass. Jefferson only had two passing attempts at Ford Field, and didn’t throw at all in the driving rain at Mona Shores.
Some may call Muskegon’s run-first offensive strategy bland, but winning is never bland.
The offensive flash was provided by CJ Jefferson and Davion McCall, two speedsters who flourished on jet sweeps and reverses. Junior running back Lonnie Clark would be a star on almost any other team in the state, but there simply weren’t enough handoffs to go around at Muskegon.
Defensively, I thought some teams might be able to expose the Big Reds through the air. But Willie Shanks and the rest of the Big Reds’ secondary played strong throughout the playoffs, and helped the defense record two postseason shutouts.
Shanks had three interceptions in the shutout of Dewitt, giving him 10 on the season, a new school record.
Standout junior linebacker Ali’Vonta Wallace was able to roam sideline-to-sideline, thanks to a ferocious defensive line that was able to keep blockers stationed. Eli Jackson, a 280-pound tackle who had two sacks in the title game, worked with end Paul Riley to anchor the line.
The defense never got the credit it deserved, despite shutting down so many talented offenses throughout the playoffs.
Since we can’t create a time machine, and have this year’s Big Reds play any of the previous three title squads from the early 2000s, or the great Muskegon teams from earlier eras, we will never know exactly what Big Red squad was the best of all time.
But one thing is for certain – this year’s Big Reds created a championship legacy that will be hard to match for future teams.
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