By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
More than three months had passed since the last time Ky’ren Cunningham had lined up as a receiver for Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
But with one last desperate chance to win the Division 3 championship on the line during the 2016 Final, the Eaglets’ running back moved back into unfamiliar territory.
Cunningham even switched spots in the alignment with teammate Clay Antishin, moving outside as St. Mary’s lined up from the Muskegon 18-yard line trailing 28-23 with 10 seconds to play.
But Cunningham was in the right spot all along.
Six seconds later he split a pair of defenders in the Ford Field end zone and hauled in Caden Prieskorn’s pass to give the Eaglets a 29-28 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“I play running back,” said Cunningham, a junior at the time. “It was one-on-one and the safety didn’t come over the top. Caden just threw it. He just made the read.
“My body felt so weak (when I caught it). I don’t remember much.”
Longtime Detroit sportswriter Tom Markowski described the play’s setup this way in his report for Second Half:
Make no mistake. This was desperation, and it was a makeshift play. Cunningham is a starting running back. The last time he lined up as a receiver was in the first game this season against Macomb Dakota. Coach George Porritt ditched that plan afterward. Cunningham would stay in the backfield.
“It was a pistol right,” Prieskorn said after the game. “All we knew was we were going to have man-on-man coverage.”
St. Mary’s had entered the playoffs 5-4, running its record to 10-4 with the victory. The championship finished a string of three straight Division 3 titles for the Eaglets.
PHOTO: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Ky’ren Cunningham rolls up with the ball tucked after scoring the game-winning touchdown in his team’s 2016 Division 3 championship victory over Muskegon.
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.