By Nate Thompson
MUSKEGON – Shane Fairfield has heard it all before.
A few hours after his Muskegon Big Reds edged DeWitt last Saturday to advance to the Division 3 state championship game for the fourth straight year, a handful of critics on social media began to chime in.
“1-5 in title games. If you get there yearly, win it.”
“Let’s see if Fairfield can seal the deal this time.”
For a coach who has enjoyed one of the best stretches of success in the history of a program stacked with tradition, Fairfield has clearly earned more respect than that. He’s compiled a 112-19 record since his first season at Muskegon in 2010, and has taken the Big Reds to the state finals seven times. But the critics still hammer on the losses in state championship games, where Fairfield has a 1-5 record.
His lone championship came in 2017, when the Big Reds defeated Farmington Hills Harrison in the Division 3 finals, 28-10. Muskegon is favored to give Fairfield his second title on Saturday when it battles River Rouge (12-1) at Ford Field in Detroit. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m., and will be broadcast on Fox Sports Detroit.
Fairfield takes the criticism from the “keyboard warriors” with a grain of salt.
“When they do what I do, give up my summers to be in the weight room every day, and drive all over the state to camps, when they’re at every practice and go every step of the way through the season with these kids, then they can talk about me,” Fairfield said. “But these people aren’t a part of it.
“If teachers or administrators want to tell me something, then I’ll definitely listen to them. But for those outsiders, I don’t pay any attention. To me, and I’ve said this before, I’ll never apologize for losing. The bottom line is we’re one of 16 teams left trying to win one game. People tend to forget that we’re playing some really good teams, too.”
Indeed, Muskegon has come up short against some outstanding teams in the state finals, and has also experienced some plain old bad luck on Michigan high school football’s biggest stage.
The Big Reds had the misfortune of matching up against some talent-stacked Birmingham Brother Rice teams in 2012 and 2013, and were victims of some unfortunate circumstances against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 2014 and 2016. The Cardinals squeaked out a win in a defensive slugfest, 7-0, in the first meeting, and stunned the Big Reds with a last-second touchdown in a 29-28 thriller in 2016.
A year ago, an inexperienced Big Reds defense simply couldn’t get any key stops against an explosive offense from Detroit King, and suffered a 41-25 loss in the Division 3 finals.
Amazing season, great quarterback
The 13-0 Big Reds gave us a hint in the first weeks of the season that this was going to be another very special year. They went on the road and dominated two defending state champion teams – Warren De La Salle 41-7 and Detroit King 41-18.
Their third game was a challenge, but they pulled out a 28-23 victory over East Grand Rapids. Then they rolled, closing out the last six games of the regular season with easy wins over Kenowa Hills (58-0), Fruitport (59-0), Jenison (49-10), Grand Rapids Union (59-0), Mona Shores (53-0) and Reeths-Puffer (56-0).
At the center of it all, of course, has been senior All-State quarterback Cameron Martinez, who is by consensus the most electrifying player in the state.
This season he’s eclipsed 2,000 yards again, rushing 230 times for 2,016 yards and 35 touchdowns. And he’s literally been on fire in the playoffs.
Martinez sent out a clear signal of his determination to win a state title this year in the district opener against Marquette, when he rushed for 293 yards and scored seven touchdowns – all in the first half of a 69-7 victory.
Against Cedar Springs in the district finals, he racked up 223 yards on the ground with four touchdowns, including scoring runs of 72 and 52 yards. Muskegon won 48-10.
He showed his versatility in the regional finals against East Grand Rapids, rushing for 136 yards and three touchdowns and passing for 101 yards and one TD in a 49-10 victory.
And he came through last Saturday in the state semifinals against DeWitt, when the Big Reds were in unfamiliar territory, tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter.
With under six minutes to play, Martinez led the Big Reds on a decisive 83-yard scoring drive to capture an exciting 28-21 win. And he did it in dramatic fashion, running 20 yards for the game-winning touchdown on fourth down, with only 2:18 left.
He finished with 281 yards rushing and 136 passing.
“He’s not the strongest, and he’s not the fastest, but he’s unmatched in his will as a man to compete and win,” Fairfield said about Martinez. “That’s what sets him apart. The best word I have for him is ‘wow.’ I wish I could come up with a better adjective, but that’s fitting.”
More passing, better defense
Fairfield wasn’t blowing smoke in the preseason when he proclaimed the Big Reds were going to open up the offense and the passing game. He realized he couldn’t have Martinez carry the ball 30 times every game.
That pledge came to fruition on Oct. 4 at Jenison, when Martinez actually had more passing yards (205) than rushing yards (109), showing that Muskegon was capable of spreading the wealth offensively.
Martinez has completed over 60 percent of his 104 passes for 11 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
“Everyone wants him to have 400 yards every game, with 20 touchdowns, but we’re not built that way,” Fairfield said about his quarterback. “In the blowouts, we’re not getting him the ball a lot (in the second half), which we could do.
“He’s very unselfish in that he wants to get everyone involved. We could be getting balls thrown to him all over or getting him on kick returns to pad his numbers, but he’s not concerned with that.”
Fairfield reminds everyone that River Rogue will have to account for all 11 Big Reds on offense, not just Martinez.
Tommy Watts, the Big Reds’ 5-foot-7 senior running back, is the other big weapon on offense. He’s totaled 879 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. And in the Big Reds’ veer offense, other players often get to shine, like Japrie Henderson on jet sweeps and fly routes, and Quenten Reynolds and Oakes in the passing game.
“That means we need to block well for Tommy, and block on the perimeter,” Fairfield said.
While Muskegon can now do more things on offense with its passing game, it has also improved tremendously on the other side of the ball.
Fairfield was concerned a year ago with his defense going against a loaded Detroit King squad, but he’s much more confident this time around. This season, the unit has held 10 of Muskegon’s 13 opponents to 10 points or fewer, and recorded five shutouts.
A significantly improved defensive secondary is one reason for that outstanding performance, starting with senior Kolbe Lewis and sophomore Myles Walton at cornerback.
“Myles Walton was 14 years old playing in Ford Field last year, but now he’s got 27 games under his belt,” Fairfield said. “Kolbe Lewis is a two-year returner to the state finals.”
An asset that Fairfield has never had is two outstanding safeties who excel in defending against both the run and pass. He’s enjoyed that this season with juniors Julius Sims (6-1, 182) and Tyreese Oakes (6-0, 180).
“They both have the ability to cover the entire field and go sideline to sideline,” he said. “They’re able to read formations and get people lined up correctly. They both play with an aggressiveness and ability that I haven’t coached before at that position. And they’re both juniors, so they’ll be back.”
Other key defensive leaders, such as linemen De’andre Ellis, Billie Roberts and Billy Johnson, or linebacker Tarran Walker, will also be playing in their third or fourth state finals. That experience, Fairfield said, is invaluable.
River Rouge really good at football, too
Muskegon did not get any breaks in its latest state finals matchup. River Rouge was favored to emerge from the other side of the Division 3 state playoff bracket, and did not disappoint.
River Rouge hasn’t shed its traditional label as a great basketball school. The Panthers reached the Division 2 state finals in hoops last season. It’s just that they’ve become pretty good at football, too.
They opened the 2019 season with a 17-14 loss to Grand Rapids Catholic, but since then have ripped off 12 straight wins, including a 14-7 victory over Chelsea in last Saturday’s semifinals.
On the season River Rouge has outscored opponents by an impressive 479-99 margin.
The Panthers are stacked with players with college offers and commitments, led by senior running back De’Andre Bulley, a 6-foot, 245-pound bruiser who Fairfield likens to former Pittsburgh Steelers’ star Jerome “The Bus” Bettis. Bulley has rushed for over 1,800 yards this season and is being recruited by a handful of Power 5 conference schools.
“He’s a big dude and he’ll challenge our defense,” Fairfield said. “They’ve got some big kids on their D-line. They’ve got a kid who’s 6-5, 260, and their nose guard is 6-4, 330. They play a special kind of brand of football. They play consistent, they’re physical and they’re fast. I’m excited to see two explosive teams going at it.”
Muskegon still doesn’t throw the ball all that much, and that might be a good thing against a talent-filled River Rouge secondary. The Panthers feature Eastern Michigan University recruits David Carter and Xavier Smith at cornerback, as well as dynamic safeties Chastin Cross and Joshua Wiley. Middle linebacker DeShawn Walker has over 100 tackles and 12 sacks and is committed to the University of Toledo.
Smith will also challenge the Big Reds’ special teams, because he has six kick or punt returns for touchdowns this season.
Head coach Corey Parker has nearly matched Fairfield’s success rate at the east side school, tallying an 81-15 record during his past eight seasons. Prior to Parker’s arrival, River Rouge had a combined 11 wins between 2004-2009.
The Panthers reached the state finals and lost in 2015, then lost semifinal games in 2016 and 2017.