By Nate Thompson
MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield tried to keep a straight face for as long as he could.
When describing the spectacular opening night performance of junior quarterback Cameron Martinez, Fairfield first gave praise to his team’s offensive line for opening gaping holes at the line of scrimmage.
But then he couldn’t resist having a little fun.
“Anything after that,” Fairfield continued, “it was all coaching.”
Martinez’ blazing speed and keen ability to make defenders miss in the open field might have been a slightly bigger factor than that.
He broke loose for 290 rushing yards and five touchdowns on Friday at Hackley Stadium, leading the defending Division 3 state champion Big Reds to an impressive 36-21 season-opening victory over Warren De La Salle, the defending Division 2 state title winners.
As far as making a great first impression, Martinez exceeded all expectations – even his own. When asked if he expected to put up such eye-popping statistics in his first game with the Big Reds after transferring from Muskegon Catholic Central, Martinez said he didn’t.
“Really, I was just hoping to get a win and get better,” he said. “After last season, there were a lot of questions on how we would come out, and I feel we didn’t disappoint.”
Martinez said his transfer last winter was eased by the Big Reds coaching staff making him comfortable in their offense. He said also appreciated having the luxury of running behind an offensive line that averages 300 pounds – led by 360-pound senior tight tackle Anthony Bradford.
“It’s like a college or pro line,” he said. “They’re the real deal.”
With rainy conditions in stretches, Muskegon only attempted one pass Friday. The Big Reds went full-go with designed runs for Martinez.
They scored on their opening drive, which spanned 12 plays and 60 yards, capped by a Martinez three-yard touchdown plunge. The extra point kick was wide left.
De La Salle charged right back, taking its only lead on its next possession, when quarterback Anthony Stepnitz connected with talented senior wide receiver Joshua DeBerry on a 17-yard fade pattern to put the Pilots up 7-6.
Muskegon dominated the second quarter, starting with an interception by senior linebacker Ali’Vonta Wallace, who snatched a tipped pass as the Pilots tried to set up a screen.
Three plays later, Martinez burst through a big hole up the middle, opened by linemen Marquis Cooper and D’Andre Mills-Ellis, and raced 39 yards to put the Big Reds up 13-7.
With 2:10 left in the half, Martinez broke around left tackle, bounced off a defender and sprinted 13 yards to give Muskegon a 20-7 halftime lead.
Fairfield said his biggest concern were some miscues in the defensive secondary, including broken coverage early in the third quarter that allowed DeBerry to get free and haul in a 65-yard bomb from Stepnitz, narrowing the Big Reds’ lead to 20-14.
But the Big Reds continued to thrive on long, sustained drives. They answered with a 14-play effort near the end of the third quarter, and kicker Carlos Sias-Hernandez put three on the board with a 28-yard field goal.
Again, the Pilots made it interesting. They turned outstanding field position into another touchdown drive when Stepnitz snuck into the end zone from a yard out to make it a 23-21 game with 8:02 remaining.
But Martinez’s sprinter-like speed made the difference in the closing minutes. His biggest highlight-reel run came with 4:55 to play, when he turned what appeared to be a medium gain on the far left hash into a reverse-the-field, broken tackle, 36-yard run to the right corner of the end zone.
That score put the Big Reds up 30-21, and he added a 51-yard TD dash with 1:33 left for good measure.
“He’s explosive, he’s strong, and to learn our offense that quickly like he did, it’s impressive,” Fairfield said of Martinez. “We’re blessed to have him.”
Wallace led the Big Reds with 10 tackles, while Rico Crowley and Johnny Martin each had sacks.
Muskegon should have had another touchdown if that ref wasn’t in the way. He was gone.
How is Muskegon so good every year?