DETROIT – Orchard Lake St. Mary’s has been bitten before by teams that made last-second winning plays.
This time St. Mary’s bit back.
Ky’ren Cunningham’s 18-yard touchdown reception with four seconds left gave the Eaglets a thrilling 29-28 victory over Muskegon in the Division 3 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.
St. Mary’s (10-4) began its last drive on its 20-yard line with 1:55 left. A pass interference penalty by Muskegon and Rashawn Allen’s 22-yard run placed the Eaglets in a good position to go for the winning score.
On 3rd-and-3 from the 22, quarterback Caden Prieskorn scrambled for four yards and a first down. An incomplete pass preceded the winning score.
“It was a pistol right,” Prieskorn said. “All we knew was we were going to have man-on-man coverage.”
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.
But not this time. St. Mary’s had five wideouts and to confuse matters more, Cunningham went to the slot, then switched spots with Clay Antishin, with Antishin moving inside.
“I play running back,” said Cunningham, a junior. “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.”
If Cunningham was stunned, Muskegon was more so.
The only loss the Big Reds (12-2) had this season was to a team from Illinois (Lincolnshire Stevenson). They rolled through the playoffs with their Semifinal game against Edwardsburg (19-8) the only close one.
“I just didn’t do a good enough job of teaching coverage,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said.
“People say we can’t win the big one," he added. "We won a lot of big games to get here. The football game doesn’t define you. It’s what you do and the way you act afterwards that defines you.”
It was Muskegon’s fourth loss in a Final since winning its last title in 2008. Meanwhile, the championship was St. Mary’s third straight and eighth overall.
Muskegon took a 21-20 lead on its second possession of the second half. It took the Big Reds 1:48 to go 50 yards with senior quarterback/running back Kalil Pimpleton going the final 18 to give Muskegon the lead with 11:21 remaining.
St. Mary’s then went on one of its patented long, time-consuming drives to retake the lead. The Eaglets took 12 plays to go 47 yards, and Ben Fee set an MHSAA Finals record with a 49-yard field goal to give his team a short-lived 23-21 lead with 4:47 left.
Clinton Jefferson, Jr., returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to midfield to give the Big Reds great field position, and they made it count. Jefferson carried five times on the drive for 32 yards, including the last three for a touchdown with 1:55 left.
As it turned out, that was too much time to leave for St. Mary’s.
“Cade made some big throws against DeWitt (in a Regional Final),” St. Mary’s coach George Porritt said. “What amazes me is we were 5-4 at one point, and we battled back.”
St. Mary’s is the fifth team to win an MHSAA football title having lost four games.
Muskegon led 14-13 at the end of an entertaining first half.
The Big Reds went 70 yards during the opening drive and took a 7-0 lead on Pimpleton’s 18-yard touchdown run. Pimpleton’s 27-yard pass to Jefferson helped set up the score.
St. Mary’s then went 69 yards, but its drive stalled and Fee kicked a 32-yard field goal.
La’darius Jefferson took over at quarterback for Pimpleton in the second quarter, and Muskegon increased its lead to 14-3 as Jefferson completed an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. He carried five times on the drive for 25 yards. His 54-yard pass to Pimpleton was the key play.
After another Fee field goal, Muskegon had possession late in the half. But on 3rd-and-9 Jefferson handed off to Pimpleton, who threw a halfback pass that was intercepted by Shermond Dabney, who returned it 30 yards to the Muskegon 30. On St. Mary’s 3rd-and-9, Prieskorn threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Antishin, who made a diving catch in the end zone with 35 seconds left before the break.
Allen was a workhorse in the backfield, and ran with determination. A junior, he rushed for 136 yards on 25 carries, and Cunningham had 15 carries for 46 yards. Prieskorn was 13 of 21 passing for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
For Muskegon, Pimpleton had three receptions for 88 yards, was 3 of 4 passing for 58 and rushed nine times for 56 yards and two touchdowns.
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) St. Mary’s Ky’ren Cunningham (12) celebrates his game-winning touchdown. (Middle) Muskegon’s La’darius Jefferson breaks around his blocker Saturday.
Over the last decade we’ve previewed intriguing football matchups every week from every region of the state, detailing one and highlighting four others. We usually choose from six or seven possibilities in each area that really stand out.
We could have put together a Week 5 list 10 deep in the Detroit area – any other week we may have included Rochester Adams (3-1) at West Bloomfield (3-1), Macomb Dakota (4-0) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (2-2), Grosse Pointe South (3-1) at Roseville (3-1), Dearborn Heights Robichaud (3-1) at Redford Union (3-1) or Clarkston Everest Collegiate (2-2) at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett (3-1) in that group.
Head just west, and Dexter (2-2) at Ann Arbor Huron (3-1) has potential. Go farther west and Hudsonville (4-0) at Grandville (3-1) is in the conversation. In the Thumb, Marlette (3-1) at Harbor Beach (3-1) likely will be important down the road, and Houghton Lake (3-1) at McBain (3-1) would make the Northern Lower Peninsula top five most of the time.
And those are just some of the few that also caught our attention as we dive into many more below.
Bay & Thumb
Chesaning (3-1) at Montrose (4-0) - MHSAA.tv
Chesaning’s continued improvement and Montrose’s excellent start have given the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference a fuller field of contenders, and these two are the only ones undefeated in league play. The Rams have defeated both the reigning champion (Durand) and runner-up (Ovid-Elsie) from a year ago – by eight and seven points, respectively – and also have defeated Chesaning all six times (including once in the playoffs) since the two schools began playing in this league together. Chesaning also has an impressive victory this fall, as it provided a loud statement to start the league schedule with a 27-22 win over New Lothrop in Week 2.
Belleville (4-0) at Livonia Franklin (3-1) - MHSAA.tv
Belleville has won 29 straight games and the last two Division 1 titles, and after getting past River Rouge 35-28 in its season opener has won its first three Kensington Lakes Activities Association East games this fall by a combined score of 165-7. In fact, the Tigers are a combined 36-1 against KLAA East teams since joining the league in 2018. But this weekend’s matchup starts an intriguing month as Belleville pursues big goals again. Franklin has won two straight Division 2 District titles and had the most success among league teams against the Tigers last season, although that still ended with a 42-14 Belleville win.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Flat Rock (4-0) at Riverview (3-1), White Lake Lakeland (3-1) at Walled Lake Western (4-0) - MHSAA.tv, Detroit Catholic Central (3-1) at Warren De La Salle Collegiate (2-2) - MHSAA.tv. SATURDAY Detroit Edison (4-0) at Warren Michigan Collegiate (4-0).
Lansing Everett (3-1) at Grand Ledge (4-0) - MHSAA.tv
The Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title race could fall a number of ways, but at this moment these two and East Lansing are undefeated in league play with Grand Ledge also the reigning co-champion and with a win already over last year’s other title winner, Holt. Everett bounced back from an opening 23-20 loss to still-undefeated Sexton and has generated some buzz – the Vikings were just 2-6 a year ago, but their defense especially has impressed this fall giving up a combined 37 points over four games. Grand Ledge won last year’s meeting 34-6 – but also just got past Lansing Waverly last week by a point, after Everett had downed the Warriors by 20 in Week 3.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lake City (3-1) at Beal City (4-0) - MHSAA.tv, Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-0) at Hastings (2-2), Haslett (3-1) at Mason (4-0), Lansing Catholic (2-2) at Portland (4-0).
Northern Lower Peninsula
Whitehall (4-0) at Manistee (4-0) - MHSAA.tv
This might be Manistee’s biggest game since it finished its perfect regular season in 2018, as the Mariners welcome Whitehall in what eventually may determine the West Michigan Conference Lakes champion. Whitehall won last year’s meeting 55-0 – but Manistee already has avenged a 46-19 loss to Muskegon Oakridge and improved on last season’s results over Mason County Central and Muskegon Orchard View as well. A strong defense (35 points allowed over four games) will get its best challenge yet as Whitehall has scored 34 or more in all four of its games.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gaylord (4-0) at Cadillac (3-1), Charlevoix (3-1) at Benzie Central (2-2) - MHSAA.tv, Traverse City St. Francis (2-2) at Kingsley (3-1) - MHSAA.tv, East Jordan (3-1) at Maple City Glen Lake (3-1) - MHSAA.tv.
Southeast & Border
Adrian (4-0) at Chelsea (3-1) - MHSAA.tv
Chelsea saw its three-year Southeastern Conference White title streak end at three last fall, but the Bulldogs are shaping up as favorites again – especially after they followed an opening loss to Grand Rapids Northview by nearly doubling up Edwardsburg the next week. The Bulldogs won a 10-game winning streak against Adrian, including 31-7 a year ago. But this Maples team is resembling more those that made the playoffs all but one season during the first decade of the 2000s, with the 4-0 start their best since 2010. They handed reigning league champion Tecumseh a 29-7 defeat last week.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Blissfield (3-1) at Clinton (3-1), Napoleon (4-0) at Grass Lake (4-0), Dearborn Divine Child (3-1) at Jackson Lumen Christi (4-0) - MHSAA.tv, Monroe (3-1) at Saline (4-0) - MHSAA.tv.
Portage Central (3-1) at St. Joseph (3-1) - MHSAA.tv
St. Joseph has bounced back well from an opening-week loss to Niles and can put that first game further out of mind over the next three weeks as the Bears face Central, then Portage Northern and Stevensville Lakeshore – the other three teams that have started 2-0 in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference. St. Joseph has won five of its last six against Central, but only 13-12 a year ago. The Mustangs are rebounding from last season’s 4-5 finish, with a nice win over East Lansing to start and their only loss the closest game Division 3 top-ranked Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central has played this season.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Benton Harbor (2-2) at Dowagiac (3-1), Parchment (3-1) at Kalamazoo United (2-2), Centreville (2-2) at White Pigeon (4-0) - MHSAA.tv, Niles (3-1) at Sturgis (2-2) - MHSAA.tv.
Menominee (4-0) at Houghton (2-2) - MHSAA.tv
The Maroons have started well with their move to the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper, outscoring their first three league opponents by a combined 154-6 after opening the season with another shutout of century-old rival Marinette, Wis. But things get only more challenging from here. Houghton has won two straight as it looks to build off last season’s best finish in a decade. Menominee then will face Gladstone, Negaunee and Kingsford over the final three weeks of the league schedule. Those three have been dealing each other losses over the last three weeks but remain in the title hunt.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Calumet (1-3) at Kingsford (3-1) - MHSAA.tv, Sault Ste. Marie (3-1) at Marquette (1-2) - MHSAA.tv, Negaunee (3-1) at Hancock (1-3), Ishpeming (1-3) at Bark River-Harris (2-0).
Byron Center (4-0) at Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (4-0)
Anticipation of this rematch goes back to last season as their Ottawa-Kent Conference White opener ended up deciding the championship in FHC’s favor thanks to its 21-13 win. Byron Center didn’t lose again over the final six weeks of league play, and the Rangers went on to finish Division 2 runners-up at Ford Field. Forest Hills Central is Division 3 this season and, as noted above, top-ranked. Both can boast large average margins of victory and impressive wins over Division 4 No. 3 Grand Rapids Christian. The main difference perhaps is that East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Northview and Lowell also are looking like O-K White contenders – and the winner of this matchup surely will have an important edge when considering the full league picture.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY East Grand Rapids (4-0) at Grand Rapids Northview (3-1) - MHSAA.tv, Spring Lake (4-0) at Grand Rapids West Catholic (4-0), North Muskegon (4-0) at Hart (4-0) - MHSAA.tv, Zeeland West (4-0) at Zeeland East (4-0) - MHSAA.tv.
Gaylord St. Mary (3-1) at Onaway (3-1)
Onaway followed a 2-7 finish in 2021 with a 1-8 run a year ago and a forfeit of this fall’s season opener after a late-breaking coaching change. But the Cardinals' immediate resurgence has been awe-inspiring. With boys basketball coach Eddy Szymoniak also taking over this program, Onaway has outscored its last three opponents by a combined 132-38. Gaylord St. Mary has bounced back nicely as well from an opening loss to Pickford, shutting out its first two Ski Valley Conference opponents (and receiving a forfeit from a third). The Snowbirds join Indian River Inland Lakes – which received that Week 1 forfeit from Onaway – as the teams undefeated in league play.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Climax-Scotts (4-0) at Bellevue (3-1), Lake Linden-Hubbell (2-2) at Powers North Central (4-0) - MHSAA.tv, Marion (3-0) at Rudyard (3-1), St. Ignace (4-0) at Rogers City (2-2).
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PHOTO Bark River-Harris's Dominick Lantagne (13) finds a big hole and gains several yards during his team’s opening day win over Ishpeming Westwood. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)