By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Muskegon High School’s varsity, junior varsity and freshmen football teams all practice on tiny, land-locked Wilson Field, adjacent to Hackley Stadium, the same practice field where thousands of Big Reds have learned the game for more than 100 years.
Junior quarterback Kalil Pimpleton and his stable of athletic receivers and defensive backs are using 90 percent of the available space at a recent practice, running a series of post, flag and go routes under the watchful eyes of head coach Shane Fairfield and offensive coordinator Brent White – along with a group of young, future Big Reds peering wide-eyed at their heroes through the barbed-wire fence.
Meanwhile, sequestered in a muddy corner, are the guys who do all the dirty work.
“We know this is where it all starts,” said Muskegon senior guard and defensive tackle Derices Brown (6-foot-1, 280 pounds), a three-year starter and the team’s only interior player who starts both ways. “If we make the blocks, we can make the backs look good.”
Brown anchors the senior-led right side of the Muskegon attack – along with tackle Juanye Johnson (6-3, 279) and slot back Khari Wilcox-Lewis (6-0, 230) – which excels at straight-ahead drive blocking when fullback Jared Pittman needs the tough yards and for sealing the edge on sweeps for senior slot PP Copeland and Pimpleton.
Muskegon (5-1) is averaging 46 points in its last five games and more than 300 rushing yards per game behind its dominating front five, which has been a constant in the Big Reds’ six trips to MHSAA championship games over the past 11 years.
The leader of the group up front is Matt Bolles, an all-state tackle at Muskegon Catholic Central who went on to play at Eastern Michigan University and brings a warrior’s mentality to his job as the offensive line coach.
“We have established a physical mindset throughout the whole program, but especially on the offensive line,” Bolles said. “If we can run our veer between the tackles, it sets everything else up.”
An amazing run
While many urban football programs have struggled to even field a team in recent years, Muskegon has thrived.
In fact, an argument could be made that the past decade has been the best in school history – which is saying something, considering Muskegon has won more than 800 football games, dating back to 1895.
Muskegon won Division 2 championships in 2004, 2006 and 2008 under Tony Annese, who moved on to Grand Rapids Community College and now coaches Ferris State, which is currently 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation in Division II.
Matt Koziak coached the Big Reds for one year in 2009, finishing 7-4, before stepping down. Koziak is now the head coach at cross-town rival Mona Shores.
Enter Shane Fairfield, who actually started coaching at Muskegon in 1998 under Dave Taylor, one year before Annese arrived. Fairfield gained head coaching experience for five years at nearby Holton before returning to Muskegon as defensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009, then took over from Koziak as head coach in 2010.
Fairfield’s teams have made the playoffs in each of his first five years as head coach, but the past three teams have displayed the physical and mental toughness to take it all the way to Ford Field, marred only by disappointing finishes – losses to Birmingham Brother Rice in Division 2 Finals in 2012 and 2013 and a loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in last year’s Division 3 title game.
This fall, the offensive front is playing inspired, with a singular goal of an MHSAA championship.
“We want to keep getting better, keep getting stronger and be at our best on Week 14,” said Johnson.
Brown and Johnson are both all-state candidates on the right side of the Muskegon line, while considered among the top guards and tackles, respectively, in the entire state and getting attention from both Division I and Division II college programs.
In addition to the strong right side, the other starters up front are junior center Devin Sanders (6-0, 225), senior left guard Dylan Oplinger (6-1, 258) or Corion Ross (6-3, 255) and sophomore left tackle Antwan Reed Jr. (6-7, 286) – a physical specimen who already has been offered a scholarship by University of Tennessee and is considered among the state’s top line prospects in the 2018 class.
Commitment to the weight room
There was a time when Muskegon struggled to match the strength and physicality of teams like Rockford and Lowell, with those games often coming down to whether Muskegon could spring enough big plays to withstand a physical pounding.
But Muskegon’s new emphasis on year-round weight training has changed that dynamic.
“I always tell the kids that if I was an employer and wanted to hire someone, I would go into the weight room in the summer and see who’s in there,” Fairfield said. “Anyone can get fired up on Friday night, but you get bigger, faster, stronger and healthier by spending time in the weight room year-round.”
Muskegon looks at its weight training in three stages – heavy power lifting from the time the season ends through the spring, higher-intensity cross-training and flexibility training in the summer and four days a week of lifting during the season, a phase which not every team employs once the season begins.
“We want to stay strong during the season,” Fairfield explained.
Muskegon’s emphasis on strength training is not only paying dividends on the field, but it’s also helping its players move up to the next level.
Terrance Taylor (Michigan) and Carlin Landingham (Ferris State), who is now on the Big Reds’ coaching staff, are a couple of the players who have gone on to college success, but the rate of placing linemen on college rosters has ratcheted up in recent years.
For example, four of the five starters on Muskegon’s 2012 offensive line are now playing college football – Antwan Billings at Saginaw Valley State, Quincy Crosby at Kalamazoo College, Chandar Ricks at Northwood and Malik King at Ball State.
This year’s group could go on to similar college success, thanks in no small part to Muskegon’s strength training emphasis. Sanders, the starting center, is the small guy at 225 pounds (“our little runt,” as Bolles calls him), but the other five regulars are all at least 255 pounds.
“We don't just try to use our kids for wins at Muskegon,” said Bolles. “Our goal is to make our kids responsible, caring, hard-working and loyal men.”
Quest for perfection
At most high schools, guiding the football team to an MHSAA championship game three consecutive years would lead to the building of a statue in the coach’s honor at the stadium entrance. At Muskegon High, losing that title game has a small faction of fans pushing for a new varsity football coach.
Fairfield knows such expectations come with the territory at Muskegon, which boasts 17 MHSAA championships and doesn’t post runner-up finishes on the sign perched high above the Hackley Stadium press box.
But nobody takes those rare losses harder than Fairfield, which was evident in his postgame television interview last month after Muskegon defeated previously unbeaten Grandville for the 800th win in school history.
“It’s great to get our 800th win, but I wish it was 801,” Fairfield said. “That dang loss (in the opener at Detroit Catholic Central) still bothers me.”
Muskegon lost two games last season – both of which gnaw at Fairfield and his coaching staff, and seniors like Brown and Johnson, on a daily basis. The Big Reds get a chance to avenge those losses in the upcoming weeks.
The first goal for the Big Reds is to win the battle of Muskegon. The Big Reds host Reeths-Puffer this Friday on Senior Night, before the much-anticipated showdown at unbeaten Mona Shores on Oct. 16.
Shores beat Muskegon for the first time in 33 years, last fall, breaking open a 20-20 game at halftime behind the running of Tyree Jackson for a 48-27 victory
The second goal is to win the battle of Michigan. Muskegon, which is experiencing enrollment declines in recent years, will likely end up in Division 3 again this fall, where rivals such as Zeeland West, Lowell and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s could be looming once again.
“We have more desire than ever to win it all,” said Brown. “The only way we’re going to do that is by getting better and getting stronger every day.”
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 protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon's offensive line lines up for work with historic Hackley Stadium's home bleachers and press box in the background during the Big Reds' 800th win on Sept. 11 over visiting Grandville. (Middle) Muskegon junior quarterback Kalil Pimpleton strides into the end zone through a big hole created by pancake blocks from senior guard Derices Brown (No. 57), senior tackle Juanye Johnson (center) and senior guard Dylan Oplinger (right). (Below) The Hackley Stadium crowd looks on, along with members of the Muskegon football coaching staff, from left: offensive line coach Matt Bolles, offensive coordinator Brent White, receivers coach Tracy Lewis and head coach Shane Fairfield. (Photos courtesy of Tim Reilly.)
Caryn Jackson said it “started to hit her” at about noon, some seven hours before kickoff.
An official for football games at both the high school level in Michigan and the college level for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Jackson started to fully realize what a special event she was about to participate in.
Jackson was assigned to be the head line judge for the Waterford Kettering at Detroit Lincoln-King varsity game last Thursday at Detroit Mercy, but this was a different assignment than any other.
In addition to Jackson, there were four more women to form what’s believed to be the first all-female officiating crew for a varsity football game in state history.
With that in mind, Jackson posted what was about to happen on her X (Twitter) feed hours before the game.
“It had 23,000 engagements in an hour,” Jackson said.
And all this happened without any retweets from her daughter Rikea Jackson, the 2019 Miss Basketball Award winner at Detroit Edison who plays for Tennessee and has over 10,000 followers.
The football game arrived, and right away spectators sensed they were watching history unfold.
The crew of Jackson, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little, umpire RanDee Henry and back judge Kamaria Douglas made history and inspired others during a night that should be impactful for a long time.
And this also wasn’t the first time they’ve led in the officiating world.
Randolph is a Big Ten football official. As noted above, Jackson officiates Division II college football. Douglass, Little and Henry all are college basketball officials as well, and Little in March became the first woman to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since 1995 when she refereed the Division 3 championship game at Breslin Center.
Here are thoughts from all five about their unforgettable evening on the football field:
Kamaria Douglas: “It was very well-received, which was an even better feeling,” she said. “There were a lot of people, whether we were in the parking lot afterward or just chit-chatting, who wanted to take pictures. People gave us kudos and flowers and said we did a nice job. It’s one thing to get an opportunity, but also to go out there and do a good job. They want to see more of it. Waterford Kettering’s coach said he was the father of three girls, so it just warmed his heart. He came over and got a picture with us, which was really cool.”
RanDee Henry: “This game, although historic, was even more amazing because I got to do it with friends,” she said. “All of these women have strong friendships on and off the field, making this moment even more amazing and monumental.”
Very honored and proud for the Waterford Kettering Football program for being part of MHSAA history with the first ever all female group of officials for our game. Congrats to all five of them. @WKFootball1 @WKHSCaptains @WSDATHLETICS @MHSAA @michiganhsfca pic.twitter.com/HJvtEMSnXA
— Coach Bob Chiesa (@ChiesaBob) September 22, 2023
Caryn Jackson: “For my children, I always tell them to leave your mark wherever you go and whatever you do,” she said. “Be a part of history. Who knew I would be refereeing high school, let alone doing it with all women? It feels good when I walk the football field and people are cheering just because they see a woman. People say ‘I’m glad you’re here, ref.’ I’ve had young boys walk up to me and shake my hand and say thank you for making history, and that you’re the first female official I have had. That stuff makes me feel good. To do it alongside four other women, that was amazing.”
Delonda Little: “Women are breaking barriers, and it’s nice to be acknowledged and to have some gender equality out there,” she said. “We all felt good to get the support during the game from the coaches and the fans. Both coaches told us we did a great job. Coaches wanted to take pictures with us to be a part of the historical moment. Fans as we were leaving told us we did a good job.”
Little continued: “Women, we still have a long way to go. But it’s good we are getting the acknowledgment we deserve. There should be gender equality.”
Nicole Randolph: “The players kind of got the adrenaline going,” she said. “I was already a little nervous going into the day because it was really happening. When I got to the field, I was calm, cool and collected. When we all walked onto the field, the players were excited, and the coaches were excited. They asked for pictures and said they wanted to take pictures at the end of the game because they had never seen this many female officials at a game.”
Randolph continued: “We went in and said ‘Hey girls, this a great opportunity. Let’s make the best of it so we can continue to open the doors for other young ladies to continue to aspire (in) our footsteps.’”
PHOTO Thursday's crew at Detroit Mercy, from left: head line judge Caryn Jackson, umpire RanDee Henry, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little and back judge Kamaria Douglas. (Courtesy photo.)