By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – River Rouge wasn’t intimidated by Muskegon’s national acclaim or 859 football victories, the most by any Michigan high school.
If anything, the chance to knock off the unbeaten and top-ranked Big Reds brought out the absolute best in the Panthers.
After spotting Muskegon a 7-0 lead, Rouge scored the final 30 points to claim a 30-7 victory in the Division 3 championship game Saturday night at Ford Field.
“We are known for basketball, but now we have a football title,” said 10th-year Rouge coach Corey Parker, who lauded his team for playing fearlessly on both sides of the ball. “Now we have a football title, and 20 years from now these guys are going to be talking about it.”
All the talk coming into the game centered on Muskegon senior quarterback Cameron Martinez, the two-time MLive Player of the Year who had rushed for more than 2,000 yards. But the talk afterward was about a different QB – River Rouge’s Mareyohn Hrabowski.
Hrabowski, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior, answered an early score by Martinez with three rushing touchdowns of his own, finishing with 15 carries for 175 yards – an average of nearly 12 yards per carry. He also completed 6-of-12 passes for 45 yards.
“I just had to follow my blocks,” said Hrabowski. “I had faith in myself and my team, and we came out on top.”
It was the first Finals appearance and championship for Rouge, which has qualified for the playoffs all 10 years under Parker. Rouge lost its opener this fall to Friday’s Division 4 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central before reeling off 13 straight wins. The Panthers were ranked No. 5 in Division 3 entering the playoffs
The other storyline Saturday was the Rouge defense, which held a Muskegon team averaging 49 points per game to a season-low seven.
The Panthers did it with an ultra-aggressive strategy, sometimes with all 11 defensive players within three yards of the line of scrimmage just daring Martinez to throw the ball.
Instead, Muskegon kept trying to find a way to break Martinez through the initial wall and into the clear, but it never happened.
Martinez, a 5-11, 190-pound senior who has committed to Ohio State, finished with 108 rushing yards, but it took him 34 carries to get there – at 3.2 yards per carry. He also did not complete a single pass, going 0-for-5 through the air.
“We just didn’t play our game, really,” said Martinez, who faced relentless pressure every time he dropped back to throw. “We have played great for 13 weeks, and we picked a bad time to play bad.”
Hrabowski scored on runs of one and 40 yards in the second quarter, as the Panthers took a 14-7 lead into halftime.
Rouge (13-1) kept its foot on the accelerator during the second half, with Rmontaye Caldwell returning the third-quarter kickoff 36 yards to the Muskegon 35-yard line. On the next play, Hrabowski went 35 yards on a keeper and the lead was 21-7.
The score remained the same until the fourth quarter, when Rouge rounded out the scoring on a 31-yard field goal by Avery Burch and a 33-yard run by Deandre Bulley.
Bulley, a 6-2, 245-pound senior who is being heavily recruited by schools at the Division I level, came into the game needing just 80 yards to reach 2,000 for the season. He came up five yards short, with 15 carries for 75 yards, but Hrabowski more than made up the difference.
Rouge used extremely wide splits on the offensive line to open up running lanes for Hrabowski, who stunned the stingy Big Reds’ defense with his vision and deceptive speed in the open field. On two of his scoring runs he faked a jet sweep handoff and ran straight ahead behind guard Deshawn Smith and tackle Chance Moore through the left side of the line and eventually into the end zone.
The final stats bear out Rouge’s dominance.
The Panthers held a 330-180 edge in total yards, including a 45-0 edge passing. Rouge outrushed Muskegon 285-180.
Darieon Jones, a 5-8, 190-pound senior defensive back, was everywhere for Rouge, registering a game-high 14 tackles, including 10 solos. Linebacker Deshawn Walker had eight tackles, and Tyron Jones and Chastin Cross each made six stops.
River Rouge has been known around the state as a basketball school, winning 12 Class B state titles under legendary coach Lofton Greene during the 1960s and 1970s. But now the Panthers, who are part of the Michigan Metro Athletic Conference, are making a name for themselves on the gridiron.
Rouge made a statement by dominating Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 49-14 in the Regional Final, then overcame a 7-0 fourth-quarter deficit in last week’s Semifinal to knock off Chelsea 14-7.
The Panthers rode that momentum into the Final.
Muskegon, led by senior linebacker Tarran Walker and senior safety Tyreese Oakes with nine tackles apiece, added another layer of frustration to its Ford Field troubles.
The Big Reds have played in a championship game at Ford Field seven of the last eight years. But the lone victory, and the lone Finals title for 10th-year head coach Shane Fairfield, came with a 28-10 victory over Farmington Hills Harrison in 2017 for the Division 3 championship.
“That’s the way it happens,” said Fairfield, who last week became the second-winningest coach in Muskegon High School history. “We won 13 games and made 13 other teams feel this way. This is the risk you take. You could lose early or not even make the playoffs and never experience this.”
Muskegon, which had won 40 of its past 41 games entering Saturday night, is the winningest program in state history with 859 victories, a total which also ranks seventh nationally.
PHOTOS: (Top) River Rouge quarterback Mareyohn Hrabowski rolls out and finds a receiver as Muskegon’s Billy Johnson Jr. (42) and Dwight McKinney close in. (Middle) River Rouge defenders including Rmontaye Caldwell (17) surround Big Reds quarterback Cameron Martinez.