By Greg Gielczyk
Can the Muskegon Big Reds make it 10 consecutive district football championships?
That question will begin to be answered at 1 p.m. Saturday when the Big Reds host the Cedar Springs Red Hawks at historic Hackley Stadium. At stake is a Division 3 district trophy.
Muskegon, which lost in the state semifinal game last year, is a regular in the playoffs, having qualified for the post-season each of the last 20 years.
The Big Reds advanced to the state final in 2019 and 2018 and won the state title in 2017.
Cedar Springs is a familiar opponent for the Big Reds. This is the fourth straight season the two have met in the playoffs, with the Big Reds all the previous matchups.
“Unfortunately, I know them all too well,” Big Reds coach Shane Fairfield said. “They win a lot of football games. They do things the right way. They play hard.
“They’re physical. I’ve seen them now the last few years. It says a lot about Gus (Kapolka, the Red Hawks’ coach) and his staff to be there year in and year out.
“They’re another polished vehicle that he’s prepared,” Fairfield said. “They’re off and running and playing some of their best football right now.”
Fairfield said the Red Hawks employ the ‘T’ formation, sending the quarterback out on sweeps around the end and using the play action pass.
Defensively, the Red Hawks will line up in multiple fronts, Fairfield said, with an odd front with three down linemen.
“They have a really good nose tackle that plays two gaps in the ‘A’ and then they have a lot of standup perimeter players, which could give us fits because we’re a perimeter heavy, so they’ll give us a few extra overhang,” Fairfield said.
“So they’ll kind of force you to run in the middle and then they kind of smother you with the way they run to the football. Then they have an even man and always keep two high safeties.”
Fairfield added that the Red Hawks have a “bend but don’t break” philosophy on defense.
“It’s like ‘we’ll give up yards, but before you can put together a 10-play drive or punch it in, we’ll create a turnover or you’ll make a mistake’ kind of mentality,” Fairfield said.
That means the Big Reds need to control the ball, move the chains and finish drives. That’s where the defense comes in.
“Our offense needs possessions and the only way you can do that is get stops early on downs for them,” Fairfield said. “For us, we need to keep them second-and-seven, second-and-nine. Then put together plays and drives.
“So, defensively the keys for us are to get them behind the sticks and then not fall asleep on the play action pass,” Fairfield said. “Offensively, we need to sustain drives and score when we have the football, whether it’s three points or seven points.
“If we get it (the ball), we can’t play around and get cute,” he said. “We have to be smart on every possession, to move the sticks and score when we have the opportunity.”
The Big Reds are on an eight-game winning streak after a 49-14 loss to Cass Tech in Week 2. The offense has been operating at peak efficiency. Muskegon has scored 460 points this season while compiling its 9-1 record.
Cedar Springs comes in 8-2 with a two-game winning streak. The Red Hawks have a productive offense themselves, having scored 445 points in 10 games.
It’s the Big Reds last home game regardless of who wins on the other side the bracket. A Big Red victory will send them on the road to either Mt. Pleasant or DeWitt.
“Each week you get one step closer to playing for the state championship,” Fairfield said. “There’s no tomorrow. We have to put all our eggs in this basket and play our very best.”