Photos by Scott DeCamp, graphic by Zach Zweigle | CatchMark
In a series that has been known to draw upwards of and even exceeding 10,000 fans, last season’s Mona Shores vs. Muskegon crosstown football showdown felt like a sparsely attended Pop Warner game in comparison.
Attendance was restricted and crowds limited amid the coronavirus pandemic, making the imposing grandstand at iconic Hackley Stadium feel rather empty.
“Last year, it was like a middle-school game – nobody was there,” Mona Shores senior Jeff Lenartowicz said about the Sailors’ 21-14 victory over the Big Reds. “I really don’t know what it’s like to play in that experience (of a packed Mona Shores-Muskegon game), so I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
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The current Sailors and Big Reds are about to find out what it’s like. An overflow crowd is anticipated at Sailor Stadium Friday night, when Mona Shores and Muskegon square off in a battle of state-ranked teams that are both 5-1 overall and 4-0 in the OK Green Conference.
Much is at stake in the CatchMark SportsNet Game of the Week: A league title, playoff positioning and, of course, bragging rights over the neighboring school.
“Everything’s at stake,” Muskegon senior Damari Foster said. “I think we take every game as like our last game. You never know when it could be taken away from you, so just play every game like it’s our last.”
The Mona Shores vs. Muskegon series, while heavily tilted in the Big Reds’ favor over the years with a 32-8 ledger, has become a much-anticipated event in recent seasons.
Muskegon is the all-time winningest program in Michigan history, and the Big Reds rank sixth nationally in victories. Their stature in the high school football landscape has been established for decades.
The rise of Mona Shores, meanwhile, has come more recently. The Sailors have four state finals appearances in the last seven years, including three in a row in which they’ve secured the last two Division 2 championships.
Muskegon has maintained the upper hand in the past decade with a 7-3 record against Mona Shores, but both are considered among the state’s elite these days. Not only is this game a spectacle locally, it’s of interest statewide.
Case in point: In 2017, with Muskegon and Mona Shores entering as unbeaten teams, a crowd of 11,500 packed Sailor Stadium and watched the Big Reds claimed a 35-24 victory over the Sailors.
“We’ve been lucky enough where it kind of gets this special because of their success and our success,” said Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak, a former Muskegon assistant and head coach, who is a Mona Shores alumnus. “It’s definitely one we circle on our calendar and I always (say), I think every high school kid deserves to play in a game like this – crosstown rival, it’s going to be packed, two great teams, two tremendously well-coached teams.
“So, it’s fun every year and they bring out the best in us and hopefully we do the same.”
This is the 12th season at the Muskegon helm for coach Shane Fairfield. During his time, the Big Reds are 127-23 with nine straight district titles, five consecutive regional crowns, seven state finals berths and a Division 3 championship in 2017.
Fairfield will acknowledge that the Mona Shores game is big because of what it means in-conference and for playoff ramifications, but he stops short of using the word “rivalry.”
“The thing across town doesn’t bother us at all. I mean, they’ve been there for 54, 55 years that we’ve been here. It’s a team that competes every year for the conference championship as well, so it’s no different than playing Zeeland West or Reeths-Puffer, who’s right across town as well,” Fairfield said.
“You can’t take (the hype or experience of the game) away from 16- and 17-year-old kids because they’re friends, they’re crosstown friends. They’ve grown up together, moms and dads and aunts and uncles all work together, you know, so you can’t take that way. But I think they understand what’s the bigger picture – talking about the bigger picture – but I can’t take the excitement away from them what it means to play the game.”
Lenartowicz said Friday’s game knows there’s a lot riding on Friday’s game. “Winner of the city” will be determined, he said.
If a crowd of, say, 10,000 shows up, then the experience should only be heightened.
Foster’s face lit up in the anticipation of how the atmosphere might be.
“It’s amazing, it’s electric,” he said. “It’s a blessing – it’s all I can say. Just happy to be out there playing. No (COVID-19) restrictions – it’s amazing.”
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