By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON – Muskegon hasn’t faced many gut-check moments in the regular season in recent years.

In fact, the Big Reds’ last regular-season loss came way back in Week 2 of the 2016 campaign against Lincolnshire (Ill.) Stevenson.

But East Grand Rapids presented a different set of challenges for the Big Reds during their home opener on Friday at Hackley Stadium.

The Pioneers’ screen and mid-range passing game gave Muskegon fits throughout the game. Clinging to a five-point lead with 4 minutes, 52 seconds to go, the Big Reds needed to assert themselves to ice the victory.

So that’s what they did. Muskegon’s offensive line took charge, opening holes for quarterback Cameron Martinez on the final drive. Martinez gained the most important 42 yards of the 243 he ran for in the game, and Muskegon was able to drain the clock and preserve a 28-23 victory.

Cam Martinez rushes the ball for Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

“With our young offensive line, I pulled them aside and just told them to calm down and keep our composure, we’re built for this.” said senior center D’Andre Mills-Ellis, the lone returning starter on the Big Reds’ offensive line. “This is why we went through all the work in the winter and summer, for moments like this.”

Martinez chalked up three rushing touchdowns, helping Muskegon improve to 3-0, following a pair of wins on the east side of the state against defending state champions Warren De La Salle and Detroit Martin Luther King.

Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield said he warned his team not to get an inflated ego following the two blowout victories to open the season, because he expected the Pioneers to prevent a stiff challenge.

“From watching them, I knew they’d be the best team we’d face,” he said. “Just their toughness, their scrappiness. They’re not afraid of us, not intimidated. Physically, I thought we outmatched them, but it came down to resiliency in a few other areas.”

Muskegon had a 13-0 lead after one quarter, following a 51-yard burst to the end zone by Tommy Watts and a 31-yard touchdown sprint by Martinez.

The lead increased to 20-0 on the Big Reds’ opening drive of the second quarter, when Martinez made the Pioneers’ defense pay after they cheated players to the right in anticipation of a power run. Instead, Martinez made a cut left and raced 12 yards before leaping over the goal line.

But Muskegon could never blow open the contest. On the very next series, the Pioneers made an aggressive Big Reds’ defense pay when they set up a well-executed screen to running back John Shelton.

Quentin Reynolds looks up after delivering the hit for Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

Shelton raced 60 yards, broke a tackle at the Big Reds’ 19 and then rumbled the rest of the way to the end zone, making it a 20-7 contest.

“We didn’t read (their screens),” Fairfield said. “We took bad angles, and had bad positioning on a few of them. But it’s all coachable, correctable. They didn’t knock us off the ball and knock us over. It’s all moments we can work on and improve.”

East Grand Rapids used a 17-play drive to kick a 22-yard field goal right before halftime to make it a 20-10 game. The Pioneers actually outgained the Big Reds in the first half, 266-232, with 229 of EGR’s yards coming via the pass.  But they also had three turnovers, including a pair of interceptions by the Big Reds’ Myles Walton and Kolbe Lewis.

The third quarter was scoreless, but the Big Reds responded with a huge score just two plays into the fourth. Facing a Pioneers’ blitz, Martinez broke an arm tackle on a keeper up the middle and had a clear path to the end zone, giving Muskegon a 28-10 lead.

But the Pioneers refused to go away, scoring on a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Robbie Stuursma to Nathan Milanowski on a post pattern to cut the lead to 28-16.

EGR then recovered an onside kick and proceeded to create a little magic. From the Big Reds’ 19, Sturrsma scrambled right and heaved a pass into traffic in the end zone. The ball was tipped into the air and Pioneer receiver Jack Mundell made a spectacular diving, finger-tip catch with 4:56 to play. The extra point made it 28-23.

But Muskegon made sure the Pioneers would never get the ball back.

“We felt they were a real disciplined, hard-nosed team,” Mills-Ellis said. “A close win is better than a blowout win. It tests you as a team and shows who you are.”

Julius Sims led the Big Reds defense with 11 total tackles, while Mills-Ellis and Billy Johnson each had sacks.