By Nate Thompson
MUSKEGON – As if advancing once again to the biggest prep football stage in Michigan isn’t enough, the Muskegon Big Reds have another motivating factor when they square off against Zeeland East in Saturday’s Division 3 state semifinals at Grand Haven High School.
They have a chance to earn the right to play indoors in a comfortable domed stadium – Detroit’s Ford Field – away from the ice, snow and frigid wind chills they’ve endured the last few weeks.
Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said it’s been a challenge at times getting his team to focus at practice in temperatures in the 30s.
Even as they try to become the first team in Muskegon football history to repeat as state champion, working out in the nasty weather can be challenging.
“It’s like a daily 2 ½-hour battle with your mind,” said Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield, whose team will kick off at 1 p.m. on Saturday. “I try to compare it to when they were kids and their mom handed them a coat and hat and told them to go play outside for a few hours. And then 20 minutes later, their coat was off and they’re playing in the snow. If they can do it then, than why not now?
“If they want to play their last game indoors and hear their name called when they’re walking down that tunnel (at Ford Field), they’ve got to have that mental toughness to put up with three hours of cold and block it out, to earn that reward at the end.”
History says Muskegon has a good chance to win on Saturday and earn another trip to the finals. Saturday will be the Big Reds’ sixth state semifinal appearance in the past seven seasons, and they’ve won their last five.
Zeeland East, on the other hand, hasn’t reached this level since 1989. But the Chix are definitely no Cinderella story.
They’ve lost only one game this season, a Week 3 nail-biter to Grand Rapids Catholic Central, which is still alive in its quest to defend its Division 4 state championship.
In the playoffs, the Chix opened with a blowout win over Stevensville Lakeshore, then fought past rival Zeeland West, 42-24, in what’s always an emotional battle.
In regionals, Zeeland East rolled past Parma Western, 50-24.
The Chix, who are averaging a shade over 40 points a game, operate out of the spread offense under the guidance of 11-year head coach Derek Pennington. They feature a pair of dangerous running threats in senior quarterback Gabe Taylor and senior running back Josh Fusco, who had 178 yards rushing at the half in the regional win over Parma Western. He missed the previous week’s district final with a partially-torn MCL in his left knee.
“They’ll do a lot of quarterback runs, and the Fusco kid really runs hard, he runs downhill,” Fairfield said. “They’ll do a lot of pulls, a lot of misdirection. We’ve got to play within the system. We’ve played a very strong schedule, but we’ve always been able to make enough plays. We’ve been better over the last few weeks.”
The Chix will be a challenge for a Big Reds’ defense that has been susceptible to big plays in the playoffs, giving up an average of 23 points in three games.
Fairfield expects senior Anthony Bradford, who primarily sees action at right tackle on offense , to see more snaps at defensive tackle to try to disrupt the Chix’ ground game. Bradford played well in limited snaps on the D-line last week against Cedar Springs, helping hold the Red Hawks’ to under 80 yards in the second half.
Fairfield also said senior middle linebacker Ali’Vonta Wallace, the Big Reds’ leading tackler, has been banged up, and sat out the district final win over Grand Rapids Christian. He returned against Cedar Springs in regionals, however, and led the team with 11 tackles.
“To see him running around and making plays last week, that’s great to see,” Fairfield said. “He’s a three-year starter, so it’s comforting having someone with his knowledge and skill out there leading us.”
Zeeland East will face a challenge that no other Muskegon opponent has met – slowing down quarterback Cameron Martinez.
Running behind a dominant offensive line, Martinez entered the Muskegon record books against Cedar Springs last week when he set a new school single-season rushing record, surpassing La’Darius Jefferson’s previous mark of 2,093 yards. Martinez currently has 2,177 yards, along with 33 touchdowns, which is tied with Jefferson for a school record in a season.
Martinez recently picked up a scholarship offer from the University of Michigan, his 12th reported offer and second from a Big 10 school, joining Northwestern.
Check out video highlights from Muskegon’s win over Cedar Springs and listen in to the replay from Wednesday’s Big Reds Football Coaches Show by clicking the Soundcloud link below.