MUSKEGON – People with limited knowledge of Michigan high school football might look at Saturday’s Division 3 state championship matchup and think it’s kind of a stinker.
The Muskegon Big Reds, with two losses, vs. Detroit Martin Luther King, with three losses.
Some might wonder how those two teams, which can obviously be beaten, managed to make it through the minefield of the state playoffs to reach the finals.
Well, it wasn’t by accident, because each team has a ton of talent, like they always do, and their losses either came either in the season while they were still developing (Muskegon), or against several very strong opponents, including two big city teams from other states (Detroit King).
The Big Reds, 11-2, have a lot of junior and sophomore starters this year, and it took some time for all of them to get up to varsity speed. They were 3-2 after five games and nobody was making reservations to be in Detroit on Thanksgiving weekend.
The low points came in Week 2, when the Big Reds were pounded on the road by powerful Warren De La Salle 49-16, and in Week 5, when they lost a heartbreaker at home to conference rival Zeeland West 38-36.
That second loss actually turned out to be valuable, because suddenly the Big Reds could see visions of their season crashing before their eyes, and they woke up and started playing to their potential.
Muskegon has ripped off eight straight victories since then.
The Big Reds’ rebound began with three impressive wins to end the regular season, over Grand Rapids Union (43-21), Wyoming (62-0), and powerful rival Mona Shores (55-35). Tucked in on Week 8 was a forfeit victory over Holland, which stopped playing at midseason.
Muskegon’s run has continued through the Division 3 playoffs, with victories over Sparta (64-9), Coopersville (40-14), Zeeland West in a rematch (27-20), and finally DeWitt (49-21) in a state semifinal game last Saturday.
“That was kind of the turning point,” Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield said about the Week 5 loss. “The guys had some real gut checks and started understanding what was at stake. Since then they’ve been playing really good with a lot of confidence. High school sports are in the hands of 17- and 18-year-old kids, and momentum can play a huge role. When they start believing in what they are doing and start playing for each other, great things can happen.”
Fairfield said he and his staff did a lot of teaching and coaching in the first part of the season, but since the team turned the corner, that hasn’t been as necessary.
“We’ve been doing a heck of a lot more cheerleading than we did in those first few weeks,” he said.
The Big Reds really turned some heads last Saturday in their big semifinal win over DeWitt at Greenville High School, because of the extreme weather conditions. Inch after inch of heavy snow fell at a very fast rate, the field had to be plowed to keep it playable, and the surface was slippery, to say the least.
Yet the Muskegon offense continued to churn out lots of yards and tons of points, led by junior quarterback M’Khi Guy, who piled up an amazing 341 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
The Big Reds piled up 485 total offensive yards (including 452 on the ground), as if they were playing on a dry field on a sunny day.
Fairfield said the key to that performance was preparation, and he credited the players for that. There was snow throughout the week before the game, but they embraced the idea of practicing in the frigid and slick conditions, rather than working out at an indoor facility.
“We went one day inside, on Wednesday, but on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday we were outside,” Fairfield said. “On Wednesday when we were inside, the kids wanted to be outside. On Thursday there was a storm, and we challenged them to practice in it for two halves, 60 minutes at a time, and they took that on, no problem. Those kids won that game on Saturday by the way they practiced all week.”
The Big Reds will play in perfect conditions on Saturday at the domed Ford Field, and logic suggests that if they can pile up the yards like they did in the heavy snow, they should do even better indoors.
Detroit King might have something to say about that, however.
Like the Big Reds, the Crusaders are no strangers to the state finals or the pressure that comes with big playoff games.
Last year they won the Division 3 state championship with a 25-21 victory over DeWitt. In 2019 they lost to Mona Shores 35-26 in the Division 2 finals. In 2018 they beat Muskegon 41-25 in the D3 finals, in 2016 they beat Walled Lake Western 18-0 in the D2 finals, and in 2015 they beat Lowell 40-38 in the D2 finals.
Detroit King comes into the Saturday’s game with a 9-3 record, but that’s kind of misleading. Their losses came in Week 1 against Indianapolis Warren Central, in Week 8 against Detroit Cass Tech (which lost by one point last week in the Division 1 semifinals), and Week 9 against Cincinnatti Moeller (which currently has a 13-1 record).
While they ended the regular season with two straight losses, the Crusaders have ripped off four straight impressive wins in the playoffs, against River Rouge (41-29), Allen Park (46-15), Brother Rice (22-12) and Mason (52-17) in the semifinals.
The Crusaders have outscored their opponents 447-147. They score an average of 37 points per game and give up an average of 16.
“They have 11 guys who can play on both sides of the ball,” Fairfield said about King. “They’re good. They’re in the same conversation that we are in, being one of the winningest programs in the last 20 years. That’s what makes this game so special.”
Whenever you hear about Detroit King, you hear about their big-armed quarterback, Dante Moore, who is committed to playing Division 1 football at the University of Oregon.
He has completed 137 of 202 passes this season for 1,787 yards with 24 touchdowns and only three interceptions. One of his main targets is receiver Jameel Croft, who had 37 catches for 671 yards and eight touchdowns.
King can also move the ball on the ground with running backs like Sterling Anderson, who has gained 918 yards and 12 touchdowns on 125 carries this season, with only one fumble.
Fairfield expects the Crusaders to throw more than they run, based on what they have done all season.
“It’s probably 65/35, so they will throw it around,” he said. “Dante is as good as advertised and is deserving of all the recognition he’s received.