Manchester’s football team is going through a re-birth.
One of the team’s top players – senior Jaxon McGuigan – calls it a change in culture.
“This summer, when we were having workouts or lifting, we had 30 guys show up every time,” said McGuigan, the team’s leading receiver. “When I was younger, there were times we would have only 10 guys. If we had 10 guys there now, we knew something would be wrong.”
Manchester is one of the oldest prep football programs in the state. It also has been one of the most successful. From 2003-16, the Flying Dutchmen made the playoffs 13 of 14 seasons, including a streak of nine straight. Then, for a variety of reasons, the bottom fell out.
Manchester went from 9-2 and a Cascades Conference championship in 2015 to back-to-back 4-5 seasons in 2017 and 2018, a 2-5 record in 2020 and 3-6 last season.
Head coach Ben Pack was brought in to make changes to the program. He’s delivered. Now in his third season, the Dutchmen have a signature win over three-time reigning league champion Addison and stand 4-1 midway through the season. They are firmly in the playoff hunt and are just a game behind league leader Napoleon, the only team to beat them this season. Even that was a close game until the end.
“Our numbers were so low when I got here,” Pack said. “We struggled. That first year, the COVID year, we could barely put together a scout team.
“When I got here, we had four guys returning from the previous year and six juniors who were on JV as sophomores,” Pack said. “Ten guys in the program. I had to do a lot of recruiting in the hallways. We had to get kids out for football.”
Pack is a veteran coach. He is a Jackson native who started his coaching career at Jackson High School while in college. He became the head coach at Parma Western in 1983 and headed home to Jackson after that. The Vikings put together a string of good teams, including the 1999 group that was Jackson’s first playoff qualifier.
Pack left Jackson in 2002 to become an administrator, but remained in football when he joined the Albion College staff. He returned to the high school ranks a couple of seasons ago at Parma Western as a volunteer assistant. Two seasons later he was named head coach at Manchester.
Pack has not only been recruiting in the Manchester hallways, but he’s also been busy implementing a strength program.
“We had no organized lifting program,” he said. “We had guys who would come in to lift, but nothing organized. Now the kids come in and they are working, they are getting stronger and more mature. Those kids who were freshmen and sophomores when I got here are stronger and more mature. With strength and maturity comes confidence.”
One of his players that first year was a freshman quarterback, Kannon Duffing, who made one start.
“He competed,” Pack said. “He was definitely a half-pint, but he played, and he did a nice job. He completed passes. He wasn’t ready to win, yet, but he grew from it and learned from the experience.”
Duffing completed 60 percent of his passes last year for 1,273 yards and nine touchdowns. This season, he’s been even better. Through five games, Duffing has completed 57 of 82 passes, a healthy 69.5 percent, for 821 yards and nine touchdowns. His interceptions have dropped from eight last year to just two this fall.
“We don’t throw deep a lot,” Pack said. “But what we do throw, he’s very accurate. He gets the job done. He’s the unsung hero for us. He’s the catalyst. He is the key to the whole thing.”
Wide receiver Andrew Campbell, running back Wyatt Carson and McGuigan are benefactors of Duffing’s accuracy.
“He is so good,” McGuigan said. “I know he’s going to put the ball right there. We have other good receivers, too, and he does a great job at getting us the ball. Our game plan is not to just get the ball to me.”
McGuigan is a former quarterback himself. He shifted to receiver early on in his career at Manchester and likes the move. He’s now a 6-foot-2, 170-pound college prospect. He’s a three-sport athlete with a 4.0 GPA.
Pack said McGuigan has great technique in the way he runs routes.
“Every successful team has a player or two that the other kids count on,” Pack said. “Jaxon has accepted that responsibility and is a role model for handling the pressure.”
Through five games, McGuigan has caught 37 passes for 554 yards and seven touchdowns. The biggest came with time running out against Addison and helped the Flying Dutchmen overcome a two-score deficit to defeat the Panthers. The Flying Dutchmen defense came up big in that game, too, when they put together a goal-line stand during the final moments to keep Addison out of the end zone.
“To be honest, that’s the type of game the last couple of years that we wouldn’t win,” McGuigan said. “To beat them just shows that everyone has buy-in now. It just shows how we’ve changed the culture here.”
Two weeks ago, Manchester bounced back from the Napoleon loss to win against East Jackson. McGuigan had one of his biggest games with eight catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
East Jackson coach Joe Niehaus said McGuigan is one of the most complete receivers he’s coached against.
“He runs great routes and catches virtually everything thrown to him,” Niehaus said. “On top of that, he is a threat to go the distance after the catch every single time.”
Manchester has conference games remaining against Michigan Center, Hanover-Horton, and Grass Lake. The Dutchmen are a top-10 team in Division 7 playoff points and are sitting nicely as they attempt to get back into the postseason.
“Ever since Coach Pack came here, it’s been drilled into us to trust the process,” McGuigan said. “We’re still far from where we could be as a team.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO Manchester receiver Jaxon McGuigan holds on to the ball while Addison defenders take him out of bounds. (Photo by Mark Ball, courtesy of the Manchester football program.)
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.