DETROIT – The wait is over for Muskegon.
The Big Reds lost in MHSAA Division 3 Finals four of the last five seasons. And when Ben Williams of Farmington Hills Harrison returned Saturday’s opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, the hearts of Muskegon fans sank a bit.
No reason to be concerned. Senior quarterback La’Darius Jefferson did what he’s done all season. Jefferson scored four touchdowns, and the defense allowed just three points as the Big Reds defeated Harrison, 28-10, in the weekend’s final championship game at Ford Field.
Muskegon (14-0) won its first title since 2008, and it helped take away some of the sting that lingers from last season’s 29-28 Division 3 Final loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s – a game where the Eaglets went ahead on a touchdown pass in the closing seconds.
That final score was posted in the Muskegon locker room all season. Every player and every coach saw it every time they walked in.
Not anymore. Coach Shane Fairfield will take that down now that the journey to the championship is over.
“It’ll be all white now,” Fairfield said. “We’ll start all over again with a clean slate.”
This is Fairfield’s first title as Muskegon’s coach. Expectations are high at Muskegon. Fans and alumni expect nothing less than a title, and close doesn’t count.
“I got it off my back,” Fairfield said. “I get to continue what I love to do.”
The Big Reds answered Williams’ kickoff return with an 80-yard, 13-play drive to tie the score at 7-7. Jefferson ended the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run.
Harrison regained the lead, 10-7, on David Hiser’s 26-yard field goal on the last play of the first quarter.
The Big Reds took their first lead during the second quarter on a 69-yard, two-play drive. Jefferson ran 55 yards on the first play, then scored from 14 yards out with 4:29 left in the half.
“We did well with that start,” Harrison coach John Herrington said. “But when you go against that type of size, you get worn down. I thought our defense played well. Passing is not our thing, and they did a good job of stopping our run.”
Muskegon held Harrison (10-4) to 61 yards rushing on 23 attempts., and also just 53 yards on nine completions through the air. The Hawks were held to 42 yards in the second half as Muskegon imposed its will.
Jefferson scored on short runs in the third and fourth quarter, and the defense did the rest.
He rushed for 245 yards on 32 carries, and his four touchdowns upped his total to 33 on the ground this season. He also threw 21 touchdown passes. On this night he didn’t have to throw much; he attempted only two passes, without a completion.
“We’ve gone against some great players here like (Birmingham Brother Rice quarterback Alex) Malzone and (Brother Rice receiver Grant) Perry. I was just hoping our guys could handle it and they did,” Fairfield said.
“La’Darius? What an amazing young man. I watched him play since he was in the seventh and eighth grades. He’s a selfless kid who loves his family. He wants all the kids (in Muskegon) to experience what he and his team have.”
As he has done many times this season, Jefferson went to the opposing team’s huddle at the end of the game to congratulate them on their play. In particular, he went to Harrison’s outstanding linebacker/tight end Ovie Oghoufo, who is committed to Notre Dame, and offered some advice.
“I told him to cherish this moment,” Jefferson said. “Not everyone is going to play in college. Not everyone is going to Notre Dame. Be thankful.”
Herrington, the state’s winningest coach, completed his 48th season at Harrison. The school is expected to close after the 2018-19 school year, and he said he’d be back for the finale.
The last time Harrison was in an MHSAA Football Final was 2010, when the Hawks won their state record 13th title with a 38-28 victory over Lowell in Division 2.
Harrison was one of only two teams to hold the Big Reds to fewer than 35 points this season, giving them their second-closest game of the fall and closest of a playoff run that saw Muskegon beat five opponents by an average of 37 points.
“Nobody stopped Muskegon all year,” Herrington said. “It was one of the better seasons we’ve had in a while. I enjoy them all. I can’t point out one more than the others.
“We have a few guys coming back. We’ll have 25 or so and go at it again.”
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon quarterback La’Darius Jefferson slices into the Harrison defense during Saturday’s Division 3 Final. (Middle) Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield hands off the championship trophy as his players begin to celebrate.
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“We don’t want to lose this kid ever,” said Derek Gribler, the Tigers’ first-year varsity football and baseball coach.
“If we could put a red shirt on this kid every year, we would.”
Athletic director John Guillean, who also coaches varsity basketball, agreed.
“He is what we strive to have all our student-athletes achieve: high GPAs, multi-sport athletes, good, overall well-rounded human beings,” Guillean said.
Schuman has participated in five of the seven boys sports Lawrence sponsors.
As a freshman and sophomore, Schuman played football, wrestled, ran track and played baseball.
He had wrestled since he was 4, and went from the 119-pound weight class as a freshman to 145 the following year. That sophomore season he qualified for his Individual Regional. But as a junior, he traded wrestling for basketball.
“My older brother wrestled at Lawrence, so I would come to practices,” he said. “I quit for a couple years (in middle school) because I liked basketball, too. It was hard to do both. Obviously, in high school, I still struggled with choosing,” he added, laughing.
Guillean is thrilled Schuman made the switch.
“He’s 6-(foot-)4, he’s super athletic, defensively he’s a hawk, offensively he can put the ball in the bucket. But really, aside from his skills, just that positive attitude and that positive outlook, not just in a game, but in life in general, is invaluable,” the coach said.
Last season, Schuman earned honorable mention all-league honors in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Lawrence left the BCS for the Southwest 10 Conference this year, joining Bangor, Bloomingdale, Hartford, Decatur, Comstock, Marcellus, Mendon, Centreville, White Pigeon and Cassopolis. Schuman and senior Tim Coombs will co-captain the Tigers, with Guillean rotating in a third captain.
At a school of fewer than 200 students, Schuman will help lead a varsity team with just nine – joined by seniors Andy Bowen and Gabe Gonzalez, juniors Christian Smith, Noel Saldana, Ben McCaw and Zander Payment, and sophomore Jose Hernandez, who will see time with the junior varsity as well using the fifth-quarter rule.
“I attribute a lot of (last year’s successful transition) to my coach, helping me get ready because it wasn’t so pretty,” the senior said. “But we got into it, got going, and my teammates helped me out a lot.”
Gribler is one coach already looking ahead to spring sports after seeing what Schuman did during football season.
In spite of missing 2½ games with an injury, the wide receiver caught 50 receptions for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I just like the ability to run free, get to hit people, let out some anger,” Schuman laughed.
Gribler said the senior is “an insane athlete.
“On top of his athletic ability, how smart he is in the classroom (3.88 GPA), he helped mold the culture we wanted this year for football. He got our underclassmen the way we wanted them. He was a big asset in many ways.”
Schuman earned all-conference honors for his on-field performance in football as well.
“I would say that my main sport is football,” the senior said. “That’s the one I like the most, spend the most time on.”
In the spring, Schuman competed in both track and baseball, earning all-conference honors in both.
“Doing both is tough,” he said. “I have to say my coaches make it a lot easier for me. They help me a lot and give me the ability to do both, so I really appreciate that.
“Throughout the week you’re traveling every day, it seems like. Baseball twice a week and track, but it’s worth it.”
Schuman’s commitment is so strong that he made a special effort not to let his teammates down last spring.
“He qualified for state in the long jump and did his jumps up in Grand Rapids, then he drove all the way to Kalamazoo to play in the District baseball game,” Guillean said. “That speaks volumes about who this kid is. He did his jumps at 9 a.m. (but did not advance) and made it back to Kalamazoo for a 12:15 game.”
Big shoes to fill
As the youngest of four children of Mark and Gretchen Schuman, the senior was following a family tradition in sports.
Oldest brother Matthew played football, basketball and baseball as well as competed in pole vault and wrestling.
Middle bother Christopher competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
Sister Stephanie played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I like to say they blazed a pretty good trail for me at this high school,” Schuman said.
As for feeling pressure to live up to his siblings, “I used to when I was younger, but now I feel like I’ve made my own way and done enough things to be proud of that I’m happy with it.”
His own way led him to achieve something none of the others did.
He was named the Tigers’ Male Athlete of the Year, just the third junior to earn the boys honor over the last 25 years.
“I was very honored to win that as a junior,” Schuman said. “There were good athletes in the grade above me. I guess hard work pays off.”
Guillean said while Schuman is “darn good at every sport here,” an athlete does not have to be a “top dog” in every sport.
“Learn how to take a back seat,” he said. “Learn how to be a role player. That will make you a better teammate and a well-rounded human being.
“Johnny has that work ethic, in the classroom, on the field, on the court, on the track. It doesn’t go unnoticed and, obviously, he’s reaping the benefits now.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence’s John Schuman has participated in five varsity sports during his first 3½ years of high school. (Middle) Lawrence athletic director John Guillean. (Below) Lawrence football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (Action photos courtesy of John Schuman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)