By Andrew Johnson

MUSKEGON – A sense of familiarity will be in the air on Saturday when the Muskegon Big Reds host East Grand Rapids at 1 p.m. at Grand Haven High School.

The two teams, who will meet in a Division 3 regional final game, will be matching up for the fourth time in the last two seasons, including earlier this year when Muskegon won a squeaker, 28-23, in Week 3.

The winner of Saturday’s game will advance to the state semifinals against either Edwardsburg or DeWitt.

“We’re used to this,” said Big Reds head coach Shane Fairfield about meeting an opponent multiple times in a season. “We’ve had to do it before. But we played them back in Week 3, so it’s been a long time. They’ve gotten better and we’ve gotten better.”

Tommy Watts breaks free on a run for Muskegon. Photo/Tim Reilly

The Big Reds are as healthy as can be, given that the season is now 12 weeks old, according to Fairfield. They are also playing their best football of the season, the coach said.

“We’re getting more and more confidence, along with experience for four sophomores who start,” Fairfield said. “By this time, you want to see growth and improvement, and I’m very happy with the way we’re playing.”

On paper the game appears to be a mismatch. The Big Reds are 11-0 and have outscored opponents by an astounding margin of 567-75. They plowed their way into the regional round with easy district wins over Marquette (69-7) and Cedar Springs (54-10).

East Grand Rapids, on the other hand, is 8-3. Besides the regular season loss to Muskegon, the Pioneers dropped close games to Zeeland West and Grand Rapids Christian. EGR has outscored opponents 432-200, which is impressive, but doesn’t come close to matching Muskegon’s numbers.

But it’s possible that Saturday could bring a tight game again. The two teams have been separated by a total of 12 points in their last two matchups, including a first-round playoff game last year that Muskegon won 42-35.

In that game, Muskegon led 42-20 with 10:42 left. The Pioneers scored twice in just over two minutes, and drove to the Big Reds’ 25-yard-line with 2:45 remaining  on the clock.

Then East Grand Rapids fumbled and Muskegon recovered and survived.

The Big Reds won’t be taking any opponent lightly, particularly the Pioneers, Fairfield said. But they also feel ready, having been down this road so many times before.

“I think it comes down to experience,” said Fairfield, who is trying to lead the Big Reds to their fourth straight overall state semifinal appearance, including the third straight in Division 3. “We got guys who have experience from the 2017 and 2018 state championship games, and they understand this time of year, and express what that means to the younger guys.”