Family matters to Muskegon

DETROIT -- Tony Annese had experienced this moment before.

But as he stood surrounded by his undefeated Muskegon High School football team, hoisting yet another Division 2 state championship trophy at Ford Field, the occasion carried a unique sense of bliss.

After all, no one expected the Big Reds -- or their coach -- to be anywhere near this postgame celebration.

The Big Reds, who claimed state titles in 2004 and 2006, began the year with 18 new starters on a team expected to win barely half its games.

Then there was Annese, who, after compiling a 78-15 record in eight seasons overseeing Michigan's winningest prep program, announced in February he was resigning.

As much as he loved coaching, and as much as his players had become members of his extended family, the job had become too consuming. Annese had just sent one teenager off to college and wanted to be around more to watch two more finish high school.

So in what he called the most difficult professional decision of his life, Annese walked away.

But three months later, when the post remained unfilled after the school's top two choices turned it down, Annese was asked to reconsider.

"For a while, I thought [returning] would be something I would refuse to do," Annese said. "But at a certain point, you have to do what's right."

So on May 13, Annese returned to the job he loved, determined to find enjoyment in what had all the makings of a trying year ahead.

But 13 straight wins later, Muskegon celebrated another championship with a 34-14 win over Warren De LaSalle, closing out a season that Annese's players said would not have been the same without their coach.

"Him coming back made everybody happy," said senior running back Jason Hannett, who ran for 155 yards and three touchdowns while also making 10 tackles in Muskegon's victory. "Some people were down [when he resigned] -- I was down, and so [when he returned], it brightened up everybody's day.

"He means a lot because he motivates all of us and pushes us all to do well in school and at home. He pushes us to work hard and do the right thing."

And doing the right thing, Annese said, was what this was all about.

Having devoted eight years to the Big Reds, Annese wasn't going to allow the team to fall onto hard times. With the right approach, he believed he could find ways to remain on the job while also spending the time he desired with his family.

He delegated more duties to his assistant coaches, allowing him to be there more for his kids. During the summer, he coached his daughter's travel softball team, often choosing weekend games over football passing tournaments that his players said he wouldn't have missed in the past.

So when the Big Reds clinched another berth in the state finals with a 38-35 semifinal victory over Davison, it was only appropriate that Annese's daughter -- who was moved to tears by another big win -- was there for her dad.

This season, after all, was about family for Annese.

On and off the field.

"Coach Annese means a lot to the kids in Muskegon," said senior quarterback Elan Banks, who ran for 117 yards and a touchdown and threw for another 76 yards against De LaSalle. "Most people say he's one of the best coaches in the state. But he's inspiring to us. He's like another father to a lot of us.

"We look up to him for everything."

And yet, throughout a season that produced Muskegon's 17th state championship and sixth since Michigan's playoff system was devised, Annese's players made his return equally as gratifying.

He came back asking them only to give their best -- win or lose. And between reconnecting with a team he once believed he was finished coaching and the underdog role the Big Reds embraced all season, the journey took on a storybook quality.

Both for Muskegon's players and the coach who had come to mean so much.

"Everyone wants to win games," Annese said. "But when you're winning games with a great group of kids, that makes it a lot more enjoyable.

"This [state title] means more because I've got a group of kids who really mean a lot. These other two state championships were special. But these kids went a little beyond special. They were incredible."