By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Muskegon High School’s offensive line sustained some BIG losses after last season.
Four of the starting five offensive linemen from that MHSAA Division 3 runner-up team, totaling 1,245 pounds in weight – and including 6-foot-5, 360-pound right tackle Anthony Bradford, who is now playing at Louisiana State University – are gone.
The lone returning starter is senior center D’Andre Mills-Ellis, which makes it all the more impressive the way the Big Reds dominated two-time reigning Division 2 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate, 41-7, during Friday’s Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University.
“All summer long, we were hearing that we weren’t going to be anything with all of the big boys gone,” said Mills-Ellis, who is certainly a big boy himself at 6-0 and 305 pounds. “We’re not as big, but we’re more athletic.”
Mills-Ellis and the young Big Reds’ linemen certainly made a statement Friday, posting a 285-94 edge in rushing yards against the Pilots, who feature 6-7, 320-pound senior two-way lineman Grant Toutant, an Ohio State commit.
Muskegon (1-0) has no time to sit back and enjoy its big season-opening win, as the Big Reds face another long road trip and another monumental challenge this Friday night at Detroit Martin Luther King (0-1) – a rematch of last year’s Division 3 championship game, which King won, 41-25.
The Big Reds will be out for revenge, led by senior quarterback and returning MLive Michigan Player of the Year Cameron Martinez (6-0, 190), who also has verbally committed to Ohio State. Martinez carried the ball 21 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns against De La Salle, while completing 6-of-11 passes for 57 yards.
Martinez is the latest of an incredible stretch of quarterbacks at Muskegon – most recently bolstered by Kalil Pimpleton, now a starting slot receiver at Central Michigan, and then La’Darius Jefferson, now a major contributor at running back at Michigan State.
“We’ve been blessed with great quarterbacks here lately, but it all starts with D’Andre getting the ball to them,” said 10th-year Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, who has guided the Big Reds to MHSAA Finals six times in the past seven years and led them to the Division 3 title in 2017.
Mills-Ellis said it’s an honor to block for such talented runners.
“The thing is, you don’t have to get pancakes with backs like that,” said Mills-Ellis, a college prospect who currently has offers from Judson (Ill.) and Northwood and wants to major in biology. “All those guys need is a little bit of room and they’re gonna go.”
The center always plays a critical role on the offensive line, getting to the ball first, surveying the defense and making sure that everyone up front knows their assignments. Mills-Ellis is used to that job, but he has become much more vocal in it with two sophomores and one junior starting alongside him.
The only other senior up front for the Big Reds is left tackle Billie Roberts (6-3, 255), a converted tight end who Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles says has Division I skills. Starting next to Roberts is junior guard Tayvid Elmore (5-11, 280), while the right side has a pair of sophomores in guard Jamarrius Dickerson (5-10, 295) and tackle Duane Anderson (6-1, 285).
“It’s different for him this year because now he’s our rock, our leader up there,” explained Fairfield. “He’s always kinda been the comedian, but he’s had to scale that back a little, so that when it’s time to get serious the other guys will listen to him.”
The senior is known for his steady snaps, as the Big Reds line up almost exclusively in the pistol formation, with Mills-Ellis initiating every play with a quick snap back to Martinez. While his center is pretty much automatic these days, Muskegon offensive coordinator Brent White said that wasn’t always true.
“We converted him from tackle, and he was a little rocky with his snaps at first,” said White, who gave credit for his improvement to snapping to Jefferson, who is nicknamed ‘Sippy’ because he’s from Mississippi. “Sippy didn’t like bad snaps and he had a way of letting him know that, so he got better in a hurry.”
Mills-Ellis, who is one of the strongest players in West Michigan with a squat of 675 pounds, is also starting for the first time this season at defensive tackle.
Fairfield said during the preseason that he believes his team will be much improved on defense, and it certainly appeared that way in the opener as tackles Mills-Ellis and Roberts completely stuffed any interior running plays.
Muskegon limited De La Salle to just one touchdown, but a bigger defensive challenge awaits this week against a Detroit King team packed with Division I prospects – notably battering-ram running back Peny Boone (committed to Maryland), receiver Rashawn Williams (Indiana) and freshman quarterback Dante Moore, who already has an offer from Michigan.
King shredded Muskegon through the air and on the ground in November’s championship game at Ford Field, but Mills-Ellis said the Big Reds are determined to not let that happen again.
“We couldn’t overlook De La Salle, because they have a great program, but deep down inside, the game we all want and that we’ve been talking about all summer is King,” said Mills-Ellis. “You have to understand, us seniors here aren’t used to losing. This is our chance to make up for that loss.”
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 email@example.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon center D'Andre Mills-Ellis throws the key lead block as quarterback Cameron Martinez scores a touchdown during the Big Reds' 45-22 Division 3 Semifinal victory over Zeeland East last season at Grand Haven High School. (Middle) Mills-Ellis talks to Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles during last year's Division 3 championship game at Ford Field. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
DETROIT – Dante Moore had no tears left to cry Saturday night, even happy tears, after he played his final high school football game for Detroit Martin Luther King at Ford Field.
“Everybody sees I’m not crying – I really cried before I got here to the game. Before I walked to the gate, I was crying and I cried last night,” Moore said.
King’s four-year starting quarterback cemented his legacy, leading the Crusaders to their second-straight MHSAA Division 3 championship with a 56-27 victory over Muskegon.
The Oregon commit finished 21-of-26 passing for 275 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions to power King (10-3) to its sixth Finals title overall and fifth in eight years.
Before Moore even took the field for his first offensive series against Muskegon (11-3), junior Jameel Croft Jr. staked King to an immediate lead with an electrifying 96-yard return of the game’s opening kickoff.
The Crusaders never looked back.
“I wasn’t expecting that. I just followed my blocks. Guys were blocking for me and the coaches set it up perfectly for me, for real,” Croft said. “It gave us a lot of momentum in the beginning of the game. It helped us out a lot.”
Muskegon pulled within 14-7 midway through the first quarter and 21-14 three minutes into the second, but Moore & Co. always seemed to have an answer.
Croft scored the game’s first two TDs, as he added a 13-yard scoring catch from Moore to make it 14-0 with 6:28 left in the first quarter.
“We started out chasing. We gave up that opening kickoff for a touchdown and we just got ourselves chasing and kind of things went from there,” said Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, whose team trailed 35-14 at halftime and pulled within 14 with five minutes left in the third but got no closer.
Croft was Moore’s top pass-catcher, finishing with six receptions for 64 yards and two TDs. Senior Sterling Anderson Jr. was a blur as King’s top rusher, totaling 207 yards on only 13 carries, highlighted by his 80-yard scoring sprint that gave the Crusaders a 49-27 lead with 10:55 remaining.
Seniors Samuel Washington and Tim Ruffin paced King defensively with nine and eight tackles, respectively. For Muskegon, senior Julian Neely registered a team-high seven stops, while junior Stanley Cunningham recorded two sacks among his six tackles.
Muskegon junior quarterback M’Khi Guy ran 20 times for 135 yards with two TDs, including a 60-yard breakaway to pull the Big Reds within 14-7 midway through the first quarter. He also completed 2-of-4 passes for 97 yards, including a 71-yard scoring strike to junior Destin Piggee.
Muskegon junior Jakob Price added 93 rushing yards and a TD on 17 carries, but the night belonged to King and Moore.
“There’s no excuse: That kid is amazing. He threw balls that we haven’t seen probably in my career,” said Fairfield, whose program was seeking its first Finals title since 2017. His Big Reds teams have been to the Finals to finish eight of his 13 seasons at the helm.
“Only one other guy threw touchdown passes like (Moore) and passes and balls like that in my career here, and that was (Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice’s) Alex Malzone – went to Michigan. Seems like we always see the (Dequan) Finns and the Dantes and Malzones and stuff when we get here, but you know, we’re here,” added Fairfield, whose 2018 squad lost to Finn and King, 41-25, in the Division 3 championship game.
King coach Tyrone Spencer said that his team overcame a lot of adversity this season. The Crusaders could not practice on their field because it’s undergoing a makeover, so they bussed to practice. They lost their season opener to Warren Central (Ind.), 44-26, and dropped the final two games of the regular season to Detroit Cass Tech (28-14) and Cincinnati Moeller (30-14).
The Crusaders got it going in the playoffs, however. They threatened the Finals record for points by one team, established Friday night by Grand Rapids West Catholic with 59.
“(The season) was up and down, but the kids, I mean, they trust us and we got it back going,” Spencer said. “They’re a resilient group of kids. It speaks to their character.”
Moore mentioned the “championship culture” at King, how one expects to be a champion once he puts on that jersey.
It’s also about giving back and respecting the game, too, which has been a custom of Moore’s since his freshman year when King lost to Muskegon Mona Shores in the Division 2 Final, 35-26.
“My freshman year, me playing against Brady Rose and Muskegon Mona Shores, I remember Brady Rose pulled me to the side and that’s where I really got it from – him taking me to the side, telling me things I can work on, and me congratulating him for what he’s done and being one of the best players to come through Michigan to be honest and leading his team on his back,” Moore recalled.
“I just knew that I had to carry that on through this past year and really pull the (opposing) quarterbacks to the side, especially (those) younger than me. Me being a senior, I’ve been through a lot. I just want to give them the keys and terms to help them be the best they can be in high school.”
Croft called the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Moore a “great leader,” who is “so poised” and one who will leave “a great legacy right here for sure.”
“Special, man,” is how Spencer reflected on Moore’s four-year run.
“You know, he’ll be the one that they’ll talk about maybe the greatest we’ve ever had here,” Spencer said. “Just really proud of him and the person that he is. He deserves it. He works hard for it, and I just couldn’t be more pleased. It couldn’t happen to a better person.”
Meanwhile, Muskegon got off to a bit of a slow start this season by Big Reds standards. They lost two of their first five games, including a 49-16 road defeat to eventual Division 2 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate, but got healthy and played their best football at the right time leading up to Saturday night.
Fairfield said the Big Reds battled and left it all on the field.
“They played 14 and when you play 14 games, of course this is going to hurt more because it’s the very last one and now you’ve got 364 days to get back,” he said.
PHOTOS (Top) Detroit King’s Samuel Washington (10) wraps up Muskegon’s M’Khi Guy during Saturday’s night’s Division 3 Final. (Middle) Crusaders quarterback Dante Moore rolls out looking for a receiver. (Below) King’s Sterling Anderson Jr. (3) follows his blockers through a sizable opening.