This is the first of a two-part series on two remarkable semifinal football games played on Nov. 21, 1992. In this first part, local sports historian Jim Moyes looks at the classic battle between Montague and Battle Creek Pennfield.
By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal
While three of our area football teams prepare for this Saturday’s games, it brought back some fond memories of my most memorable semifinal weekend of all time.
With our local teams having reached the state finals an impressive 35 times over the years, so often we forget the path taken to reach the end of the road.
There is one semifinal afternoon that will stay with me forever – the games that were played on this same weekend 20 years ago on November 21, 1992.
Unlike the unforgettable season of 2008 when it was no big surprise that all four of our semifinalists won to reach the big finale, the 1992 season also had four teams still in the hunt, but those four teams were all decided underdogs.
Veteran head coach Glen Metcalf’s Muskegon Heights Tigers had to make the long trek to the Upper Peninsula where they fell to Ironwood. In his first trip to the semis, Coach Steve Wilson’s Fruitport Trojans were defeated by Kenowa Hills.
That left it up to Montague and Reeths-Puffer to pull off a victory, however both of these teams were given little hope to advance.
Muskegon area fans were given a huge boost, much to this ole announcer’s delight, when the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced that both teams would play their semifinal game at the same site – Houseman Field in nearby Grand Rapids.
The MHSAA coffers were spiked as a combined crowd of about 13,000 fans bundled up to witness the morning-afternoon doubleheader. The majority of these ticket holders were from football crazy Muskegon.
Skies were gloomy and game-day temperatures hovered just above the freezing point as fans filed into Houseman Field for the 11 a.m. kickoff.
That gloom would soon turn to bright sunshine for each of our local underdogs.
Reeths Puffer was coached by Pete Kutches, who a full decade earlier had guided Muskegon Catholic to a state Class B championship, his second state title and third state finals appearance in three years.
Fittingly enough, who should take over the MCC reigns after Kutches left MCC in 1984? None other than 1992 Montague coach Ken Diamond.
After a short stint as the Crusader head coach, Diamond left MCC to take over the Wildcat football program. The Diamond family has formed an everlasting bond with the White Lake community and school that Ken still faithfully serves as athletic director.
Although Reeths-Puffer had experienced much success over the years, Montague, now a perennial playoff contender, had just about hit rock bottom.
I can still vividly recall a couple of decades earlier talking with some of my football cronies leading up to that day. “Wouldn’t it be great if we can get just one of these two teams to pull off the upset?”
To think both teams could pull off victories was deemed most unlikely.
For Montague to advance all the way to the state finals had to be an impossible dream for Coach Diamond. The coach, with the old-fashioned crew cut, was close to giving up coaching after difficult years in 1989 and 1990.
Montague had won only one game during that span, and the Cats lone win was a narrow 8-6 squeaker over Hart, a team that has yet to reach the playoffs.
Diamond began righting the ship by bringing in former Fruitport head coach Tom Holden to serve as his assistant and started to mold a trio of standout sophomores to turn the program around – Joel Smith, Ryan O’Connell and a curly-headed sophomore quarterback, Pat Collins.
East Lansing and Battle Creek Pennfield were not only rated No. 1 in all the polls, but also were defending state champions in their respective class. East Lansing played a very tough regular-season schedule, with only a slim 22-21 loss to Grand Ledge marring an otherwise perfect season,
The Trojans from the Capitol City area featured perhaps the top running back, not just in the state of Michigan, but also in the entire country, in speedster Randy Kinder.
Montague’s opponent Pennfield – was riding the wave of a 27-game winning streak that included a state championship win over Negaunee in 1991. The Panthers had scored a then-state record 605 points heading into their contest with the unbeaten Wildcats, averaging an implausible 60 points per game.
So heralded was the Pennfield running attack that they featured a pair of backs that each accumulated more than 1,200 rushing yards, while a third runner also neared the 1,000- yard mark.
Heading into their game with Montague, the Pennfield ball carriers averaged more than 10 yards every time they carried the ball. But that certainly wouldn’t happen on this gray overcast day at chilly Houseman Field.
When asked how the Montague players liked their chances of pulling off the upset, 1992 quarterback and current Montague coach Pat Collins summed it up for his teammates: “Our coaches at that time gave us the confidence that we could win. Pennfield seniors came into that game never having lost a game. That was just old hat to them while we were just getting accustomed to winning games.”
This was a game straight out of the pages of typical Greater Muskegon football, a combined six passes were thrown in the entire game with, but one completion. Half of those aerials ended up as interceptions by the opposing team.
Following a scoreless first half, that had to confound the Pennfield followers who had become accustomed to their point per minute offense, the game’s only score came during the third quarter.
The Montague defense, led by Montague defenders Dan Hildman, Rick Alvesteffer, Mike Moore and Joel Smith, stopped Pennfield deep into Wildcat territory at the 14 yard line.
On their first offensive possession of the third period, Montague would march to the game’s only touchdown.
With the Cats facing fourth down and one at their own 48, there was no way that Diamond wanted to turn the ball over to Pennfield’s vaunted offense.
Diamond called upon ace running back Joel Smith to give him the necessary yard and keep the drive moving. He got much more than a yard.
Joel Smith’s run would be etched forever in Montague football lore.
Smith slammed over left tackle behind the blocking of Dan Hildman and TP Johnson and was momentarily stopped for no gain. Then, with a determined second effort, Smith bounced into the open, slanted to the outside near the Pennfield sidelines, where the startled Panther bench could only look on helplessly as Smith scampered 52 yards down the sidelines for a Montague touchdown.
Incredibly enough, one who missed this epic run, was the coach himself, Ken Diamond.
“I saw one of our guys jump and I was mad about it because I thought a penalty was coming,” Diamond expounded to Chronicle Sports Editor Cindy Fairfield following the game.
“So when I turned around to say something to someone and looked back, Joel was already in the end zone.”
And thankfully for the Montague faithful, now all on their feet in jubilation, no flags were thrown on the play and the Cats were on top 7-0.
From that point on the game was decided by the unsung Montague defense, who three times in the second half thwarted Pennfield on three fourth-down tries, including a fourth down stop less than a yard from the goal line by Mike Moore early in the fourth quarter.
When I asked Collins if this could have been the game that transformed Montague football, as we have known it for the past couple of decades, he replied: “I think so. We felt that our team broke some of the walls down, but much of the credit has to go to Coach Diamond and his staff.
“He gave Montague the same formula that has continued to this day.”
The Cats were headed to their first-ever state championship, but unfortunately for the Montague faithful, their first trip to the Silverdome would not be as successful as their state championship teams in 2008 and 2009.
The Cats would fall to perennial state power Detroit dePorres in a hard-fought battle the following week.
“It was the motivation from that game that catapulted me to this mindset of having a dream of wanting someday to be a coach, and well, the rest is history and those dreams did come true,” said Collins, now the popular and highly successful Montague coach.
When asked who would have been the bigger underdog: Montague against Pennfield in 1992 or Shelby vs. Ithaca in 2012, that hypothetical question initially drew a chuckle from the current Montague head coach.
Following a short pause Collins believes the Tigers match up well with the heavily favored Division 6 state champs, who like Pennfield, are riding the waves of a long winning streak.
“Ithaca is going to have their hands full with Shelby” said Collins, whose Montague team took to them to overtime last year before losing 22-19.
Ithaca has won 40 games in a row. Its last defeat was suffered in their state semifinal game in 2009. Any guesses who won that game? You guessed it: Montague, in a blowout, 47-16,
Following Montague’s remarkable win over Pennfield in 1992, many of the ebullient Greater Muskegon faithful rushed to the warmth and comfort of nearby watering holes and restaurants to quench their thirst and appease their appetites before heading back once again to Houseman Field.
Many of our area football enthusiasts were engrossed in conversation lauding the showing from those underdogs from Montague.
“You don’t suppose Reeths Puffer can do the same to East Lansing,” was a question often repeated between games of this remarkable doubleheader at this historic football venue near downtown GR.
Coming Thursday: Part 2 of this remarkable doubleheader.
Jim Moyes can be reached at [email protected]