MUSKEGON – The holidays just don’t seem the same without certain traditions we always count on, like watching the Muskegon Big Reds in the state football finals at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Between 2016 and 2019, the Big Reds were Division 3 finalists every year, and between 2012 and 2019 they advanced to the championship game seven out of eight years.
But Muskegon stalled in the playoffs a little early in each of the past two seasons, and the world seemed slightly off balance.
Last year the Big Reds were stunned in the district finals by Cedar Springs 21-14, and in 2020 they lost to DeWitt in the state semifinals 14-0.
Now they have a chance to restore some order to the universe if they can beat DeWitt on Saturday in a 1 p.m. semifinal rematch at Greenville High School. The survivor of the game will play the winner of the Detroit King-Mason semifinal for all the marbles on Saturday, Nov. 25.
“For us it does,” said Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, when asked if it seems like a long time since his team made the finals. “People have been shocked, like man they’ve had a drought, but the drought has only been two years.
“It feels good to be back. It feels good to be practicing in the snow again.”
There will be extra motivation for Muskegon on Saturday. The Big Reds will be eager to avenge the 2020 semifinal loss to DeWitt, which not only ended the four-year state finals streak, but occurred with a controversial play that Fairfield thinks might have affected the outcome.
“It was 7-0 and we had the ball at their one after a catch (along the sideline) that was in, but a referee who was 20 yards away said it was out,” Fairfield said. “So we didn’t score on that drive, they scored again with four minutes left, and they went on to win the state championship.
“I truly believe that if we get that call there the game is different, but it is what it is. Congratulations to them. Now it’s up to us to take care of things ourselves.”
For Fairfield, getting back to the state Final Four represents a return to a routine that was thrown for a loop by the challenges of the COVID pandemic.
“We went (to the finals) seven out of eight years and we want to get that back,” he said. “For the past two years we were still recovering from the COVID stuff, not being able to have the kids in the weight room as often as we wanted, and not being able to build the relationships with the players as much as we wanted. Now you can see the difference in the way that we’re playing.”
Five weeks into the season, few people expected this to be the year that the Big Reds made it back to the elite rounds of the playoffs. They were a mediocre 3-2 after a disappointing 38-36 loss to Zeeland West in an O-K Green conference showdown in Week 5.
That came three weeks after Muskegon was blasted by powerful Warren De La Salle 49-16 on the road, and four weeks after the Big Reds struggled to beat East Kentwood 20-14 in the season opener.
To many observers, the Big Reds didn’t seem quite ready for a return to prime time.
Those observers seemed to forget that the Big Reds always seem to recover quickly when they hit their occasional slumps. You can do that with talented players and great coaching.
Since falling to Zeeland West back on Sept. 23, the Big Reds have reeled off seven straight victories, beating Grand Rapids Union 43-21, Wyoming 62-0, Holland 2-0 in a forfeit, Mona Shores 55-35, Sparta 64-9, Coopersville 40-14 and Zeeland West 27-20.
Last Saturday’s revenge victory over Zeeland West in the regional finals was particularly sweet. It gave the Big Reds wins over the Dux and Mona Shores, the two teams they shared the O-K Green championship with during the regular season.
Muskegon jumped out to a quick 13-0 lead, the Dux rallied late to tie the game 20-20, then the Big Reds calmly sealed the victory when junior quarterback M’Khi Guy scored on a 15-yard run in the final minutes.
Suddenly the Big Reds were back in the state semifinals.
“It was just a matter of us growing up and getting back to who we are,” Fairfield said. “Playing in the semifinals feels like something we believe we can do each and every year.”
Saturday’s rematch will be a clash of the state’s two winningest big-school programs (Divisions 1-4) of the new century. Dewitt is 229-42 since the 2020 season while the Big Reds are 228-44.
In 2020 both teams came into the semifinals with very impressive records. Muskegon was 9-1 in the COVID-shortened season while DeWitt was 10-0. This year both teams have overcome early struggles and have a few blemishes on their records.
DeWitt went into Week 7 this year with a 3-3-record following losses to Detroit Catholic Central (45-38), East Lansing (36-30) and Grand Ledge (56-49). Like the Big Reds, the Panthers have corrected themselves, reeling off six straight wins.
The 9-3 Panthers are definitely on a roll, but their defense remains a question mark.
DeWitt’s opponents have scored a combined 319 points this year, compared to just 80 points in 2020 when the Panthers won the state title and 225 last year when they advanced to the state finals. Muskegon has given up 239 points this year, which includes the one forfeit victory.
The Panthers will be attempting to earn their third straight berth in the state title game. They beat River Rouge 40-30 in the 2020 final and lost to Detroit King 25-21 in last year’s championship game.
While Muskegon will be eager to repay the Panthers for the 2020 semifinal loss, Fairfield said it’s important not to focus too much on that aspect.
“Any time you can beat a team that knocked you out it makes it sweeter, but the goal is just to win the football game,” he said. “If you put too much emphasis on revenge it takes you away from the game.”