ALLENDALE – The Muskegon Big Reds have made trips to Ford Field a tradition as the most winning program in Michigan high school football history has reached the state championship game in eight of the last 11 seasons.
One of the Big Reds’ constant mainstays during their Championship performances was their powerful offensive line, which allowed their electric quarterbacks to deal damage in the open.
This year’s Muskegon offensive lineup didn’t go into the regular season with much fanfare and awards as they only brought back two seniors along with two juniors and one sophomore, but they certainly earned the respect and admiration of opponents, fans and the media during their run into Saturday Division 3 State Championship game against Detroit Martin Luther King (9-3) at 7:30 p.m. at Field Field in Detroit.
The group consisting of Karl Brooks, Miguel Botello, Nickarri Lane, D’Andre Hudgins and N-Kye Wynn have beaten every opponent in their path this postseason, highlighted by their performance against DeWitt last week, which paved the way for the Grand The Reds (11-2) will go nearly 500 yards in a 49-21 win in the state semifinals.
“We see ourselves as a secret weapon,” said second-year lineman N-Kye Wynn. “Guys with skills usually get all the hype and praise, but we just do it for them. We do it for the benefit of the team because we know we have to do our job well for the offensive to be successful.
“Honestly, I would care less about individual rewards or Game Player issues,” added junior Miguel Botello. “As long as I see Jake (Price) or Destin (Piggee) running away from defense with the ball and we’re winning games, I don’t mind.”
The group experienced some development issues early in the season as they struggled to find much effectiveness against stacked defensive fronts in the season opener against East Kentwood and talent-rich Warren De La Salle in Week 2.
The breakthrough moment against Zeeland East in Week 4 proved to be a turning point for the group as they began to fight for themselves on the pitch.
“You started to see something coming together during the Reeths-Puffer game, but I think next week against Zeeland East was a big coming together moment for this group,” said Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles. “There was a moment in the game where N-Kye was blocking someone and the kid got frustrated because he was being manipulated and took a swing at N-Kye. Then everyone really gathered around and stood up for each other, as a group of brothers should. It was a big moment in our season and I think they just keep getting better and better.
“The Mona Shores game was also important to them. I think they were motivated to make a statement there. But I think last week’s win over DeWitt was the best performance they’ve had together all season. They had a kid named Matthew Nehf who is dedicated to Central Michigan and we really made him work on every play. After the game he came up to me and said we had a good offensive line and wished us good luck in the final. We’ve become pretty fierce rivals with DeWitt lately, so having him come over and say that was quite a compliment.
Despite beating their first four playoff opponents 180–64, the Big Reds felt slighted by how they were perceived both locally and statewide.
“We felt we should have more offensive linemen on the conference team (OK Green), and having just one of our guys on the entire region team was a bit disrespectful,” Bolles said. “These guys don’t care about these things as much as I do, but I know they’ve internalized it and that’s what drives them now.”
Football has been a godsend for several Big Red offensive linemen who have forged bonds and lifelong friendships during their journey with the sport.
“I think football saved some of these guys,” added Bolles. “Hudgey (Hudgins) had never played football before. He was always the type of kid who preferred to play on the computer, but he tried it in the eighth grade, but then I lost touch with him when he was in the first year of high school.
“In my sophomore year, I saw him walking on the sidewalk for two days, I pulled over in my van and told him to get in. When he really gave football a chance, he fell in love with it and I think football had such a positive impact on his life.
“N-Kye lost his father when he was a little boy and his mother is an amazing woman who raised four boys by herself. I think she gets a lot of strength and willpower from it. N-Kye takes his family very seriously because of his upbringing and I think he has really bonded with these guys on the soccer team who mean the world to him.
The Big Red linemen are also motivated by former Muskegon greats like Anthony Bradford (LSU) and Evan Towers (Central State), who have excelled at the collegiate level since high school.
“Tony actually came to our playoff game against Sparta and spoke to the team before the game,” Bolles said. “Karl is probably Tony’s biggest fan so he was very emotional when he got the chance to see him in person. Tony has had such a positive impact on so many players who have come through our program.
“These guys see Tony and realize what can happen when a kid from Muskegon gets that chance. It really can happen and he is proof of that.”
For seniors like Nickarri Lane and D’Andre Hudgins, the chance to build on that legacy is something they don’t take for granted.
“It really means a lot to me,” Lane said of the great lineman Muskegon tradition. “In my first year, the guys in this offensive line really got me into it and showed me what being Big Red is all about and I just tried to keep that going throughout my career. Now that I’m a senior, I’m trying to continue that while helping some of these younger guys continue to grow so they can keep building next year.
A former Muskegon Catholic Central and Eastern Michigan University standout, Bolles also serves as the varsity wrestling coach for the Big Reds. Cross-training between the two sports has helped players like Karl Brooks, N-Kye Wynn, Jakob Price and Destin Piggee evolve into the best performances of the Muskegon soccer team this season.
“Coach Bolles taught us wrestling in high school and it’s been a family since then,” Brooks said. “He also involved some talented guys like Jake and Destin and he just pushes us hard, which creates a bond over time. Now we’re headed to Ford Field because we’ve all become stronger as individuals and as a group.”
Botello, Wynn, Brooks and Lane also put their talents to use in the track and field season last spring, when the foursome competed in the 100m, discus and shot put under head coach Shane Fairfield.
“I think the track helped us keep fit throughout the off-season,” said Botello. “We were basically running 100 meters to work on our speed, and the shot put and discus were a good way for us to get footwork and all. We also lifted a lot in the spring, so it was another way for us to come together and compete together.”
The brothers’ team is once again seen as the loser in Saturday’s matchup against the Detroit King, but that’s what the group likes.
“Winning the state championship after everyone counted us out would be a big thing for us,” said Wynn. “We love proving the haters wrong. No one thought we’d get this far, and now we feel we have a chance to do something special. Everyone who plays Muskegon wants to win the ring, and for us to do that after the last two seasons ended would be amazing.
A rematch of the 2018 state championship game, which King won 41-25, is a chance for the Big Reds to further cement their status as one of the top football programs in the country. For Bolles, the chance to see his years of hard work pay off for a group he cares deeply about is the greatest reward he could imagine.
“It would mean everything to me,” he said. “The last game of the season always sucks because you know it’s the last time you can coach guys like Nickarri and (Hudgins) but if we were able to win the state championship at Ford Field and just see what their faces look like when they keep this trophy it would be amazing.
“This group of guys is one of the most amazing collections of people I have ever coached. They’re just great dudes, and after seeing them fight and put so much time and effort into this program over the years, I think a state championship would outweigh any other award you could give them.
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