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.
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.