By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
The media were fixated on La’Darius Jefferson, and who can blame them?
The senior quarterback validated his recent selection as the MLive statewide Football Player of the Year by rushing 32 times for 245 yards and all four of Muskegon’s touchdowns in a 28-10 victory over Farmington Hills Harrison in the MHSAA Division 3 Final on Nov. 25 at Ford Field. He followed that up by giving the dejected Harrison players a classy postgame pep talk.
If it wasn’t Jefferson, the cameras were focused on eighth-year Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, who overcame four losses in the title game by finally taking the final step and hoisting the championship trophy,
But the best story coming out of Muskegon’s recently-won title belonged to senior cornerback Willie “Bo” Shanks – a tale that started with heartbreak, which morphed into an ongoing nightmare, which had to be confronted and converted into motivation, then mixed in with relentless hard work before finally culminating with redemption. Sweet redemption.
“It felt great; it felt right,” said Shanks, the soft-spoken leader of the Big Reds’ secondary. “I guess the lesson in my story is that with focus and hard work, you can overcome anything.”
The heartbreak occurred one year ago, when Shanks was playing cornerback on the final play in Muskegon’s heartbreaking 2016 Division 3 Final 29-28 loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Shanks was running with receiver Ky’ren Cunningham, who abruptly turned in at the goal line. Before Shanks could react, the ball was in Cunningham’s arms on the ground in the end zone with six seconds showing on the clock, courtesy of a perfectly-timed pass from quarterback Caden Prieskorn.
Even though player after player, coach after coach, fan after fan, and family member after family member pointed out that it wasn’t just one play which cost Muskegon the championship, Shanks couldn’t shake it off.
"I think about it every play," the soft-spoken Shanks said earlier this season. "I think about it every day in practice. I think about it every time we go out and play a game. I even think about it when I`m asleep. I have nightmares about it, so it just motivates me a lot to not let it happen again."
Fairfield decided right away that the best way to deal with the pain of that loss was to bring it out in the open – confront it and then work to overcome it.
“We got beat with six seconds left, so everything ever since has been six more reps, six more sprints, six more drills,” said Shanks, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior who is also a starting guard on Muskegon’s basketball team, which opens its season Friday at home against Rockford.
The hard work by Shanks and fellow seniors Clinton Jefferson and Marvin Harwell and junior Lamarion Sherrill turned Muskegon’s perceived Achilles heel – pass defense – into a strength.
In both of Muskegon’s losses in 2016, against visiting Chicago Lincolnshire Stevenson (38-35) in Week 2 and the Final against St. Mary’s, the Big Reds were torched through the air. Led by Shanks in the secondary, the Big Reds fielded a defense for the first time in years this fall that was equally good against the run and the pass – with only Muskegon Mona Shores having even a modicum of success passing.
“He was our solid rock all year back in the secondary,” Fairfield said of Shanks, who is now hoping to play defensive back at the college level.
Shanks had his individual highlight in the Regional championship game against DeWitt on Nov. 10 at Grand Haven, when he intercepted three passes (including one he took back for a touchdown) as Muskegon rolled to a shocking 49-0 victory. Those three interceptions gave him 10 for the season, breaking the school record of eight held by three players, including ex-Southern Cal standout and NFL player Ronald Johnson.
If the story ended right there, it would have been a much happier ending than most ever get in the sports world. Sports Illustrated and others have told countless stories of wayward kickers, not to mention recognizable figures like Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman, who never quite recovered from a single play during a game.
But this story had a perfect ending not only for Shanks, but for the Muskegon football program as well.
After dispatching overmatched Battle Creek-Harper Creek, 42-0, in the Semifinals, Muskegon returned to the familiar confines of Ford Field, almost one year to the day of its last-second defeat.
No worries this time around. When the scoreboard clock reached :06 this year, the Big Reds were comfortably in celebration mode.
6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …0.
For Jefferson, Fairfield and the entire Muskegon football family, it was a dream come true.
And for one Big Red in particular, it also was a nightmare vanquished.
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@example.com with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon senior cornerback Willie Shanks tackles Farmington Hills Harrison receiver Joe Stevens during the Division 3 Final. (Middle) Shanks defends Grand Rapids Christian's Duane Washington during last year's Class A Regional at Grand Haven. Muskegon entered the game undefeated, before falling to the Eagles. (Below) Muskegon football coach Shane Fairfield, left, and Muskegon basketball coach and athletic director Keith Guy pose with the Class A District championship trophy after the Big Reds defeated Zeeland West this fall. Fairfield and Guy sharing great athletes like Shanks has put Muskegon’s programs among the state's elite in both football and basketball. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
There were the highest-scoring Finals performances on record, and one of the closest finishes of all-time.
Greats who will immediately go down in history played their final high school games. Others continued to write their championship stories.
Four teams made repeat trips to their season’s final days. But most who earned the opportunity during these MHSAA Playoffs stepped on championship turf for the first time, and 45,000 fans watched them do it.
Another Michigan high school football season came to a close over the last two weekends, with 8-Player Finals on Nov. 19 and 11-Player Finals this past Friday and Saturday.
MHSAA.com covered all 10 championship games, with quick recaps and links (click on the game scores) to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA Finals record book and a report on some of the main storylines to emerge as those championships were being decided.
Finals in Review
11-Player Division 1: Belleville 35, Caledonia 17 - Read
Belleville sophomore quarterback Bryce Underwood was awe-inspiring again in leading the Tigers to their second-straight championship to close a 14-0 season. He threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 149 yards and a score. Caledonia led as late as the final minute of the third quarter before Belleville scored the game’s final 21 points.
11-Player Division 2: Warren De La Salle Collegiate 52, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 13 – Read
De La Salle repeated as Division 2 champion again following the lead of quarterback Brady Drogosh, who completed an astonishing 21 of 23 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 152 yards and three scores. Forest Hills Central was playing its first championship game since 1994, with this its only defeat of the season.
11-Player Division 3: Detroit Martin Luther King 56, Muskegon 27 – Read
The Crusaders made their third championship game appearance with Dante Moore as starting quarterback and repeated as Division 3 champion as he threw for 275 yards and four touchdowns, completing 21 of 26 passes. Jameel Croft Jr. returned the opening kickoff 96 yards, and King never trailed on the way to its sixth championship. Muskegon moved up the Finals appearances list and now sits tied for sixth all-time with 13.
11-Player Division 4: Grand Rapids South Christian 28, Goodrich 0 – Read
South Christian completed its first perfect season with its first Finals championship since 2014. The Sailors took a 14-0 lead during the second quarter and doubled it up in the fourth, as quarterback Jacob DeHaan was among the weekend’s stars with 266 yards and a touchdown passing and 99 yards and a touchdown rushing. Goodrich was making its first Finals appearance.
11-Player Division 5: Gladwin 10, Frankenmuth 7 – Read
Gladwin’s Treyton Siegert drilled a 21-yard field goal during the final seconds to clinch the Flying Gs’ first Finals championship and a 14-0 season. Frankenmuth also had entered undefeated and seeking its first Finals title. As anticipated, defense dominated as the teams combined for just 424 total yards and 15 first downs, plus 11 punts.
11-Player Division 6: Grand Rapids West Catholic 59, Negaunee 14 – Read
This was another close game at halftime – Negaunee made it 14-14 on the first kickoff return of the second half, before West Catholic scored 45 unanswered points. Running back Timmy Kloska became one of the stars of the weekend as well with 241 yards and four touchdowns rushing as his team handed the Miners their only defeat of the season.
11-Player Division 7: Jackson Lumen Christi 15, Traverse City St. Francis 12 – Read
The Titans avenged a 42-35 Week 2 loss to the Gladiators to finish off their rebound from an 0-3 start this season, earning the program’s 12th Finals championship. St. Francis took a 12-0 lead into halftime, but Lumen Christi scored the only touchdowns of the second half including the eventual game winner with 7:05 to play.
11-Player Division 8: Ottawa Lake Whiteford 26, Ubly 20 – Read
These two opened the 11-player championship weekend with a close finish, as Whiteford won the matchup of undefeated contenders with quarterback Shea Ruddy scoring the game winner with just under two minutes to play. The Bobcats opened with two first-quarter scores and led 20-6 early in the third before Ubly made its comeback.
8-Player Division 1: Martin 74, Merrill 24 – Read
Martin claimed its first Finals championship since 1987 led by quarterback JR Hildebrand, who ran for 191 yards and four touchdowns including the game’s first two scores – and whose dad Tracey played on that 1987 team. The Clippers scored the first 20 points and never led by less than 12 the rest of the way. The loss was Merrill’s only one this fall.
8-Player Division 2: Powers North Central 66, Mendon 26 – Read
The Jets extended their 8-player record winning streak to 37 games with three championships while enjoying the final game of quarterback Luke Gorzinski’s career. He’s guided all three of those championship teams and this time threw for 207 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for another score, despite playing through a knee injury.
A number of longtime powers returned to Ford Field, as seven of the 16 finalists in 11-player made at least their eighth appearance in a championship game. Jackson Lumen Christi moved up to a tie for third on that list with its 15th appearance, and as noted above Muskegon moved into a tie for sixth with its 13th title game berth. In 8-player, Powers North Central became the first to play in at least five Finals – and win at least five championships. Lumen Christi is now tied for second on the 11-player championship list with 12 titles, one back of record holder Farmington Hills Harrison.
Both the 8 and 11-Player Finals saw team scoring records. In 8-player, Martin set a record with 74 points, while its 43 in the first half ranked second for one half and its 98 combined points with Merrill ranked third for highest-scoring 8-player championship game. North Central’s 66 points were the fourth-most for one team in an 8-Player Final, with its 28 in the first quarter fourth on the single-quarter list, its 41 in the first half third for one half, and its combined 92 points with Mendon also ranking fourth for highest-scoring game. In 11-player, Grand Rapids West Catholic set the Finals record for one team with 59 points, with its 31 third-quarter points ranking third on that list and its 45 second-half points ranking second. King’s 56 total points are tied for second-most in an 11-Player Final, and De La Salle’s 52 points also made that list.
Going along with those 56 points, King’s 529 yards of total offense ranked sixth, and its 24 first downs were tied for 11th-most in an 11-Player Final. De La Salle’s 25 first downs tied for seventh on that list. Martin rushed for an 8-player championship game record eight touchdowns, while its 374 rushing yards was third on that list. Merrill’s 328 passing yards ranked third for an 8-player title game, while North Central’s five TD passes tied for third and its 23 first downs tied for second most.
A pair of eventual winners got started quickly. Jameel Croft Jr. tied the 11-player record for quickest first touchdown on a kickoff return, scoring 15 seconds into the Division 3 Final on a 96-yarder for King. Bernie Varnesdeel found Carter Perry 16 seconds into the Division 6 game on a 72-yard scoring pass to give Grand Rapids West Catholic an early lead – that was the second-fastest passing TD to start a game.
Kickers did their parts during the high-scoring weekends. King’s Terrence Moore and West Catholic’s Carson Beekman tied for the record for most extra points, both making all eight of their tries. De La Salle’s Landon Ryska sits tied for third after making all seven of his attempts. Belleville’s Brayden Lane also made the list with five extra points in five tries. In 8-player, Adrian Mercier earned the second spot on that list with six extra points for North Central.
Quarterbacks again made big statements, especially a pair of stars in their final high school games. King’s Dante Moore made Finals lists with 275 passing yards, four passing touchdowns and 304 total yards, plus his 21 completions tied for seventh-most and his .808 completion percentage ranked sixth for 11-player title games. De La Salle’s Brady Drogosh also completed 21 passes, and his .913 completion percentage is second on that last. His 401 total yards ranked seventh, and he also made the passing yards list with 249. South Christian’s Jacob DeHaan made the passing yards list with 266 and total yards list with 365, and Belleville’s Bryce Underwood also made the total yards list with 304.
In 8-player, Martin quarterback JR Hildebrand scored 28 points, tied for fourth most, with his four touchdowns tied for third on the overall and rushing TD lists. Merrill quarterback Joe Tack’s 328 passing yards rank third, and his 347 total yards are eighth.
West Catholic running back Timmy Kloska earned statewide interest as his 241 rushing yards made that record list. He also tied for eighth in 11-player scoring with 24 points, tied for fifth with four touchdowns, tied the record for most rushing touchdowns in a quarter with three, and with his four rushing TDs for the game tied for third on that list.
King’s Sterling Anderson Jr. also made the 11-player single-game rushing yards list with 207, and Mendon’s Jack McCaw made the list in 8-player with 211. Merrill’s Kaleb Walker made the 8-player receiving yards list with 213, which ranks second, and Martin’s Gavin Meyers became the first 8-player entry for interceptions in a championship game after snagging three.
Special teams had its share of highlights, with four returns making Finals record book lists. Negaunee’s Phil Nelson brought a kickoff return back 98 yards, ranking third on that list, and Croft’s return noted above is tied for fifth-longest in 11-player. North Central’s Elijah Gorzinski ran back the longest kickoff return in 8-player, 85 yards, for also the fastest score off an opening kickoff in 11 seconds. Martin’s Taegan Harris earned the first 8-player punt return entry with his 94-yarder.
West Catholic and De La Salle became the 30th and 31st teams to not punt in an 11-Player Final.
Last, but certainly not least: The Whiteford vs. Ubly Division 8 Final became the first 11-player championship game to see zero penalties, and of course zero penalty yards. Previously, five games had seen 10 or fewer penalty yards by both participants combined.
Stories Behind the Scores
Up to the Challenge: For the first time, coaches at 11-player championship games were allowed to challenge officials’ calls on a series of pre-determined situations including if a pass was complete or incomplete, if a runner or receiver was in or out of bounds, etc. Two challenges were made over the eight games at Ford Field – including one challenge that didn’t need to be made as it came on a scoring play, and all scoring plays are automatically reviewable. The other challenge confirmed the officials’ original call.
Glad-WIN: Six teams came to Finals seeking a first championship, and Gladwin prevailed with its 10-7 victory over Frankenmuth, another team seeking a first title. Coach Mark Jarstfer took over the program in 2019, with the Flying Gs riding a four-season sub-.500 streak. They finished 1-8 his first year, improved to 4-4 in 2020, then 9-1 last fall on the way to a perfect 14-0 this season. We highlighted some kickers above who made big impacts over the last two weekends, but the biggest kick surely belonged to Treyton Siegert as he drilled the history-making field goal Gladwin people will be talking about for generations.
Legends of the Finals: As noted above, De La Salle’s Brady Drogosh, King’s Dante Moore and North Central’s Luke Gorzinski capped careers that saw all three quarterback their teams to three Finals. Drogosh was 2-1 in championship matchups, completing 40 of 53 passes for 230 yards and five touchdowns and running for 339 yards and five scores over those three games. A four-year starter, Moore was 2-1 in championship games. He completed a combined 54 of 72 passes for 712 yards and five touchdowns in Finals. Gorzinski won all three of his championship games, completing a combined 25 of 48 passes for 447 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite being limited to just one carry because of injury two weeks ago, Gorzinski also ran for 425 yards and six scores in championship deciders.
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PHOTOS (Top) Our collage includes photos from all 10 MHSAA Football Finals. (2) Lumen Christi’s Kadale Williams looks for an opening upfield against Traverse City St. Francis. (3) Drake Buell (7) leads Martin onto the field for the 8-Player Division 1 Final. (4) Gladwin kicker Treyton Siegert connects on the game-winning field goal in 11-player Division 5. (11-Player Finals photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos. 8-Player Finals photos by Cara Kamps.)