By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The ironic part is that the Muskegon Big Reds scheduled a regular-season football game against Detroit Martin Luther King because they wanted to prepare to play great teams in the playoffs.
But they never thought King would be one of them.
In a classic contest in Week 2 of this season, the Big Reds edged out King in a thriller at Hackley Stadium, 24-21.
Muskegon trailed 21-17 late in the game, before calmly driving down the field for the winning score in front of a packed house on a warm night.
Big Red quarterback Cameron Martinez scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run with 1:22 to play.
But even then the outcome remained in doubt. Detroit King threatened to steal the win by driving into Muskegon territory as the clock ran down.
But with just 30 seconds remaining, King quarterback Dequan Finn mishandled a snap and Muskegon’s Billie Roberts was there to pounce on the loose ball and seal the win.
“They got the lead, then we went back and got the lead, which said a lot about our team’s character and willingness to fight,” said Big Reds Coach Shane Fairfield.
When Muskegon scheduled that game, King was expected to be a Division 2 playoff team again this year, like it has been for more than a decade.
But shortly before the game, Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield noticed that King’s enrollment had dropped dramatically from last year, and they would probably be a Division 3 playoff team, just like Muskegon.
That turned out to be the case, the two powers have been on a collision course for the first four weeks of the playoffs.
Now they are set for a much-anticipated rematch on Saturday in the Division 3 state championship game at Detroit’s Ford Field at 7:30 p.m.
“I didn’t know they were going to be Division 3, dang it,” Fairfield said with a chuckle. “You want to schedule great teams (in the regular season) that you know you won’t see again. But then I saw they had dropped down from about 1,400 students to about 1,100, and I thought, oh boy, here we go.
“Shaking hands with them after that game, I told them we probably would see them again. I knew they would hold up their end of the deal.”
Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s rematch, just making it to a state championship game again continues to build an incredible legacy for Muskegon’s program.
Muskegon has been in the Division 2 or 3 state title game for six of the past seven seasons. Of course the Big Reds have not won them all. They lost four in a row – in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 – before finally breaking through last season with a 28-10 victory over Farmington Hills Harrison to claim the D3 state title.
But getting to the big dance on an annual basis is a far bigger statement than any one final score. It says that the Big Reds have developed a great program that produces outstanding results, year after year.
The faces and names in the lineup may change, but the results stay the same.
For instance, on offense last season, fans marveled when quarterback Ladarius Jefferson and running backs like Clinton Jefferson and Davion McCall sliced and diced their way through a dominating 14-0 season.
That team rolled to a perfect 9-0 regular season record, then plowed through the playoffs and beat Harrison in the state championship game. It was never really challenged.
This year it’s a different cast in the offensive backfield. The new QB is junior star Cameron Martinez, who has broken school records this year with 2,316 yards rushing and 36 touchdowns.
The running back crew includes standouts like Jeremiah Lockhart, who rushed for 149 yards in last week’s state semifinal game, and Demario Robinson, who rushed for 117.
The Big Reds are 13-0 again headed into the finals, and in the midst of a 27-game winning streak, dating back to the 2016 state title game, which they lost in the final moments to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
“It’s been a huge accomplishment,” Fairfield said about consistently advancing to the state finals. “Of course we always want to win it all, but just to get there year in and year out with all the challenges, and everybody gunning at you, it gives you a proud feeling that we’re doing something right.”
The Big Reds haven’t been quite as dominant in the playoffs this year as they were in 2017. They’ve still been very impressive, of course, but they’ve had to work a bit harder for their wins.
They got a big scare in the playoff opener, pulling out a 42-35 win over East Grand Rapids in a game that was in doubt until the final minutes.
In the regional round against Cedar Springs, the Big Reds clung to a slight 13-12 lead at halftime, before pulling away for a 34-18 victory.
Last Saturday’s semifinal game against Zeeland East was tied 14-14 in the second quarter, and Muskegon was only up by 10 points at halftime, before turning on the jets and rolling to a 45-22 victory.
The only playoff contest that lacked some drama was the 49-17 win over Grand Rapids Christian.
Those types of games have been fine until this point, because the Big Reds knew they had the talent to make adjustments and take control, Fairfield said.
But that may not be a sound strategy against Detroit King, the coach said.
“It’s just been our kids feeling out the other teams and making adjustments,” Fairfield said. “These kids feel comfortable that they don’t have to go out and have a running clock against everybody. When (Zeeland East) tied it up last week, they didn’t feel a huge sense of urgency.
“But with the kind of team we’re playing on Saturday, they have quick-scoring ability and big-time players. We have stressed that we can’t be playing around. It has to be full-throttle out of the gate or you can find yourself running out of time. We will have to play all-around sound football.”
As Fairfield is quick to point out, nobody should be fooled by King’s record, which includes two losses. The Crusaders’ other loss, besides the Week 2 nail-biter to Muskegon, came against powerful Detroit Cass Tech in the Detroit Public School League championship game in Week 9.
The Crusaders are led by three-year starting quarterback Dequan Finn, who is generally regarded as one of the best – if not the best – dual-threat signal-callers in the state.
King also has very successful recent playoff history, just like Muskegon. The Crusaders won the Division 2 state championship in 2015 and 2016 (Finn’s first year as the starting QB) and were semifinalists last year.
If the Big Reds have an edge, it may be in the trenches, particularly on offense.
The Detroit Free Press lists one of King’s weaknesses as “size, inexperience on lines.” That’s not a problem with Muskegon’s overpowering offensive line, which includes senior right tackle Anthony Bradford, senior right guard Marquis Cooper, junior center D’Andre Mills-Ellis, senior left guard Daquarius Johnson, and senior left tackle Evan Towers.
Together, the five have started a combined 119 games at the varsity level. Their average size is 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, with Louisiana State University commit Bradford being the largest at 6-5, 358 pounds.
While that may be an advantage for the Big Reds, Fairfield cautions against any sort of overconfidence. The first matchup between these teams was a thriller, and the finals could very well follow the same script.
“They are definitely loaded,” Fairfield said. “Our kids played really well to beat them the first time, and the will have to do so again to have a chance to win. It’s kind of hard to say that another team has more Division 1 (college prospect) players than we do, but it’s them.
“But there is nothing that I would rather be part of than a state championship game with those kinds of players on the field.”