Line Does Lifting, Muskegon Makes Run

October 5, 2015

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 kendra.tom@gmail.com 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.)

Moore Finishes Legendary King Career by Leading Crusaders to D3 Repeat

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

November 27, 2022

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.”

Crusaders quarterback Dante Moore rolls out looking for a receiver. 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).

King’s Sterling Anderson Jr. (3) follows his blockers through a sizable opening.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.

Click for the full box score.

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.