2 Quarterbacks Vault Muskegon to #1

November 1, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Stopping the Muskegon High School offense has never been easy.

This year, it’s twice as tough.

The Big Reds, 9-1 and ranked No. 1 in the season-ending Associated Press Division 3 poll, are attacking opponents with a two-headed monster at quarterback – diminutive senior Kalil Pimpleton (5-7, 160) and physically imposing junior La’darius Jefferson (6-2, 210).

 “I’m blessed with two great men, two great leaders, at quarterback,” said seventh-year Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, whose team won the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black title. “Using both of them makes us a better team. We don’t go into games with a specific plan for when each will play (quarterback). We see what the defense is doing and how our kids are responding and go from there.”

The result of the dual QB attack has been a Muskegon offense which is averaging 54 points and 428 total yards per game heading into Friday night’s Division 3 District championship game against visiting East Grand Rapids (8-2).

Pimpleton, who has run a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and has verbally committed to Virginia Tech, has started all 10 games for the Big Reds.

He is primarily a running threat, regularly taking snaps out of the pistol formation from senior center Devin Sanders and then finding a seam somewhere along the line to squeeze through. “KP,” as he’s known, has carried 101 times for 1,081 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. He also has been effective through the air, completing 34 of 66 passes for 639 yards and six more TDs.

“I look at the system we use as a chance for me to use all of my weapons,” said Pimpleton, who also has three punt returns for touchdowns on his resume. “It doesn’t matter if I am at QB or in the slot. My character doesn’t change, and my focus doesn’t change.”

As good as Pimpleton has been, there have been times in recent years where opponents have bottled up Muskegon’s running quarterbacks.

One example was the 2014 Division 3 championship game at Ford Field, where Orchard Lake St. Mary’s shut down the Big Reds in a 7-0 victory. Another was last year’s Division 2 Regional championship game at Lowell, where Pimpleton and the Muskegon attack got stuck in the mud in a 36-7 loss.

If that same scenario begins to unfold this fall, Muskegon offensive coordinator Brent White has a Plan B.

And what a Plan B it is.

Jefferson, who has the look of Cam Newton and the big arm to match, presents a whole new set of challenges for opposing defenses when he enters the game, which is normally around the Big Reds’ third offensive series. Jefferson brings a deep vertical passing threat, mixed with the size and strength to run over linebackers.

“I always tell myself that I can’t be stopped – that’s the mentality I like to play with,” said Jefferson, who also has delivered some big hits this fall during limited playing time at outside linebacker. “I just want to thank my coaches for using a two-QB system. Now we’ve got two hungry guys trying to win a state title.”

The benefits of Muskegon’s dual quarterback offense were apparent in last week’s 63-14 Division 3 Pre-District victory over visiting Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern.

Muskegon’s offense struggled briefly in the early going before Jefferson ignited the Big Reds and their crowd with a 56-yard TD pass to Pimpleton, who had moved out to slot receiver. Near the end of the first quarter, Jefferson scored on a 2-yard run.

In the second quarter, it was back to Pimpleton at QB and he led a scoring drive, ultimately sprinting in from five yards out. And then it was back to Jefferson, who hit standout senior wide receiver Jacorey Sullivan on a 44-yard bomb over the top to complete Muskegon’s first-half scoring.

“The idea is that we have a system and our kids know how to play with either quarterback,” explained Fairfield. “If we do it right, it puts much more pressure on the defense, not knowing what they are going to get.”

Jefferson finished the win over Forest Hills Northern 7 of 8 passing for 175 yards and three touchdowns, along with 11 rushes for 91 yards and two more touchdowns. For the season, Jefferson has completed 42 of 69 passes for 724 yards and 15 touchdowns, against just two interceptions. He has rushed 66 times for 534 yards and 10 TDs.

The two quarterbacks are by far Muskegon’s top two rushers in an offense that lines up with four receivers on most downs. The lone starter in the backfield is senior Division I linebacker prospect Andrew Ward (6-1, 210), who is a devastating lead blocker. In recent weeks, the Big Reds have started to hurt opponents with jet sweeps featuring speedy juniors Da’vion McCall, Clinton Jefferson and Lonnie Clark Jr.

Fairfield, whose team has ripped off eight straight wins after a Week 2 loss to pass-happy Lincolnshire (Ill.) Stevenson, has guided Muskegon to MHSAA Finals three times in his first six years as head coach. The Big Reds have failed to take that final step on each of those occasions, falling to Birmingham Brother Rice in 2012 and 2013 and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 2014.

Given that recent heartbreak, the Big Reds have made it clear since Day 1 that the only acceptable outcome this season is an MHSAA title. The next challenge is a dandy matchup in Friday’s District championship game between two of the top tradition-rich programs in Michigan high school football history.

Muskegon is the state’s winningest with 816 wins and 17 state titles, including five in the MHSAA playoff era. East Grand Rapids, meanwhile, has won 11 championships since the playoffs began in 1975, including five in a row from 2006 to 2010. The Pioneers have won seven straight this fall after stumbling to a 1-2 start.

The two powers have played only two times in history, with Muskegon winning both times.

“We need to come out and play our game,” said Pimpleton. “We believe in our coaches and that they will put us in the best spots to win. That’s really all that matters. We can’t lose sight that no matter who is out there, that is our one goal.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at kendra.tom@gmail.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon quarterback La'darius Jefferson picks up yards on the ground this season against Byron Center. (Middle) Kalil Pimpleton, here following through on a pass, also is a threat to run. (Jefferson photo courtesy of Muskegon football program, Pimpleton photo by Tim Reilly.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)