By Tom Kendra
MUSKEGON–Conventional wisdom holds that it takes a whole host of seniors – especially at critical positions like quarterback, running back, defensive line and linebacker – to make a long run in the high school football playoffs.
Muskegon proved this fall that conventional wisdom is often, well, not very wise.
The Big Reds advanced farther than any team in the LSJ coverage area behind a core of undersized and hyper-competitive juniors (and, in many cases, sophomores).
“Those juniors are winners in everything they do,” explained 13th-year Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, who has won 84 percent of his games, and with more than 140 wins at Muskegon is within striking distance of Leo Redmond’s 156 coaching wins – a record that many considered untouchable.
“We started off 3-2 and a lot of people wrote them off. They learned from it. They realized they had to pick up their play immediately. They grew up before our eyes.”
Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that this tight-knit group of juniors, the Class of 2024, is different and special and intense and, arguably, the greatest single class in Muskegon’s 128 years of playing football, dating back to 1895.
One of the reasons this group is so good can be traced back to their middle school days, but not on the football field. A high percentage of these boys turned into men on the wrestling mat.
Matt Bolles, Muskegon’s big and intimidating offensive line coach and now run-game coordinator, is also the head wrestling coach at Muskegon Middle School. He saw the athletic ability and work ethic in this group way back in 7th grade, and challenged them to see how tough they really were by trying something new – wrestling.
“Bolles basically told me I was going to come out for wrestling,” said junior guard Miguel Botello, who is also an honor roll student. “He saw something in all of us and he was right, it has helped us so much. Wrestling made us mentally tough.”
What transpired was nothing short of amazing.
The tone was set in the lower weights by the trio of Destin Piggee, Jakob Price and Da’Shaun Wallace Oakes – three best friends who HATE to lose and pushed each other to be the best. In the upper weights, Bolles was getting points from his “babies,” i.e., Botello, Karl Brooks and Isaiah Williams.
Before long, Muskegon was beating traditionally tough wrestling schools by 50 points in dual meets. In the middle school city meet four years ago, Muskegon beat second-place Whitehall by more than 100 points.
“I was calling Shane (Fairfield) every week and telling him: ‘Wait until you see these kids, they are unbelievable,’” said Bolles, a standout wrestler at Muskegon Catholic Central who went on to start on the offensive line at Eastern Michigan. “Those three – Destin, Jakob and Da’Shaun are best friends and it was insane how hard they went at each other every day.
“Nobody I have ever coached is as intense and focused as Destin Piggee.”
So when Price and Piggee had their coming out party last year at Mona Shores (Price had six carries for 217 yards and two TDs and Piggee had 123 rushing yards, 71 receiving yards and three TDs), it came as no surprise to Bolles and Fairfield and the rest of the Big Reds’ coaching staff.
As much as wrestling helped Muskegon’s skill players, Bolles believes it was even more beneficial for his linemen. Junior guards Botello (6-4, 300) and Brooks (6-3, 315) obviously have tremendous size, but both developed balance, agility and footwork on the mat.
“Wrestling was a great experience because you learn to be quick on your feet,” said Brooks. “And you can’t be soft or lazy, because if you are, you will get taken down.”
Botello said when the Big Reds ran into adversity earlier this season, lessons learned on the wrestling mat helped once again.
Muskegon was 3-2 back on Sept. 23, after coming out flat on Homecoming against Zeeland West, falling behind 20-0 after the first quarter and losing, 38-36. It was the second loss in September, after a humbling 49-16 defeat at Warren DeLaSalle. Even the Big Reds’ wins over East Kentwood, Reeths-Puffer and Zeeland East left much to be desired.
“It was kind of like my wrestling in seventh grade, where I only won two matches and then I had however many losses,” said Botello, who is young for his grade and just recently turned 16. “I had to work hard to get better.
“This year, we realized after that first Zeeland West game that we weren’t that good, even though people were telling us that we were. Everything changed after that game. We have been really working hard at everything and not just going through the motions.”
The result has been a run to remember, highlighted with a convincing, 55-35 win over cross-town rival Mona Shores in the regular-season finale, and then a 27-20 payback victory over Zeeland West in the Regional Finals.
It was a run that, at least on paper, appeared to happen one year early.
Consider that next year, the Big Reds return their three leading rushers (M’Khi Guy, Price and Piggee), along with three of the five starters up front. The defense returns six of its front seven, along with junior kicker and punter Adrian Ramos Velazquez.
That’s the kind of lineup which will have Muskegon’s loyal fans salivating, especially starting off with blockbuster games the first two weeks at Rockford and then back home against Warren DeLaSalle.
Fairfield said his message to his team next year will be the same as it has been during this year’s memorable run.
“We challenged these kids to be fully engaged in the moment, not thinking that I’m only a junior or I’m only a sophomore and there will be other chances,” said Fairfield. “It doesn’t always work that way in football or in life.
“Take advantage of the current moment, the current opportunity, because nothing in the future is guaranteed.”
The following juniors are starters for Muskegon High this fall.
Offense: M’Khi Guy (QB), Jakob Price (RB), Destin Piggee (Slot), Da’Carion Taylor (WR), Miguel Botello (G), Karl Brooks (G)
Defense: Chris Jones (DT), Quincy Johnson (DT), Isaiah Williams (DT), Stanley Cunningham (DE), Terrance Davis Jr. (DE), Keon Drummer (DB)
Specialty: Adrian Ramos Velazquez (K/P)
Sophomore starters: Darekeo Speech (LB), Adrian Rankin Jr. (LB), Robert Mills (DT)