By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – It was an almost storybook ending last Friday night when the Oakridge Eagles defeated Grand Rapids West Catholic, the team that sent the previously undefeated Eagles home last season in the district final game after a 10-0 start.
Oakridge, which avenged last year’s 13-6 playoff loss with the 31-25 victory – holding the Falcons to just three second-half points – now must do one of the hardest thing in sports: get ready to play in a conference rivalry game against Montague a week after such an emotional contest.
“It was a huge win,” said Eagle head coach Cary Harger of the West Catholic victory. “Our recent rivalry with West Catholic has definitely grown in intensity, so this is one that we wanted really bad. But now it’s about bringing our kids down to earth and getting them ready for Montague and the rest of the conference.”
And there’s the rub. The Oakridge schedule-makers took a huge risk taking on West Catholic so soon after such a devastating loss. Fail to beat West Catholic and the Eagles have two-straight losses bouncing around their heads, and would have entered this weekend’s game with Montague 0-1. Get blown out against West Catholic and your season could be done.
Enter two of reasons Oakridge even stood a chance last week versus the Falcons: senior Eagle running back duo Dan Shoop and Jerick Wambaugh.
The big-play Shoop and the athletic Wambaugh combined versus West Catholic for 296 rushing yards and three scores, providing a perfect complement to senior QB Austin Wright and receiver Dom Greenawalt’s Oakridge air attack, which accounted for nearly 150 yards and two scores.
As if to provide that senior prerogative to put games away, all of Wambaugh’s 117 rushing yards came in the second half. Shoop, an All-Stater a year ago who rushed for over 1,300 yards, busted loose for an 80-yard score in the second quarter.
The pair, still beaming from last week’s win, were quick to point out the Week 1 victory won’t mean much to Montague.
“It’s a new week,” Shoop said. “None of the points carry over. We come in this week knowing we don’t want to be on the same level as last week. We want to get better every single week.”
According to Harger, Shoop’s all-business attitude isn’t just for show.
“He’s a tremendous leader, a three-year starter on both sides of the ball, just a great kid,” said Harger of Shoop. “He’s very unassuming, very humble. He’s just a remarkable asset to the program.”
Shoop doesn’t just get it done on the field. Coming into this year, Shoop sits third in the class, right behind the Eagles’ Wright.
Then there is Wambaugh.
“He’s a really hard worker,” said Harger, going on to relay Wambaugh’s own journey to the Eagles’ backfield. During his junior year, Wambaugh contracted pneumonia, landing him in the hospital for several days. The running back dropped a bunch of weight and then struggled the rest of the season to regain his strength. Harger said Wambaugh lamented the way his junior year turned out and dedicated himself to go into his senior year with a renewed vigor.
“He worked his butt off last winter to regain the weight and the muscle he’d lost,” said Harger. “We’re just real glad to have him back to full strength this year. He’s really stepped up and accepted that role as senior leader. It showed (against West Catholic). He wanted it as much as anyone out there wearing an Oakridge jersey.”
Now the two stand at the brink of becoming the best 1-2 rushing punch in the West Michigan Conference.
The impressive Oakridge tradition isn’t lost on Shoop and Wambaugh.
“Here at Oakridge, we don’t…,” paused Shoop, “…think about losing. We do what we’re supposed to do. We go into games not cocky but with confidence.”
“With a lot of the coaches being alumni themselves,” said Wambaugh, jumping in, “and now they’re out here on the field coaching us. It just kind of gives me good bumps. They’ve played here; they know what it’s like.”
Shoop added, “It’s just like a big family here.”
With Montague looming, Harger is having his senior leaders convey another Oakridge tradition: doing a quick turnaround after a big win.
“We can’t use last week as an excuse to just show up and think we are going beat everyone else,” said Harger. “That game (West Catholic) is over, it’s history. Going forward, no points, no stats, nothing follows us into (Montague). We just have to show up and play hard again. We have to have as much enthusiasm and fire this week as we had last week.”
“We definitely can’t overlook Montague,” said Wambaugh. “No matter who we’re playing, we still have to go in like we’re playing the best team in the area. It’s about getting better and staying humble. We’re not at the level we want to be yet.”
Besides, said Shoop, winning last week doesn’t mean they can’t lose this week.
“Unless you’re in the state finals, winning one game doesn’t mean you’re state champions,” said Shoop. “It means you won a football game, and you have to win a whole lot of those to win the state title. You can’t take a week off. We have to give it our all every single time we step out on the field.”
Harger said his runner back’s attitudes are largely a legacy of the program.
“Here at Oakridge, I’ve told the kids that while there is a lot of visibility and recognition that we get, that means we have to work harder than not only every other team we play, but every Oakridge team of the past.
“We want to have a winning record,” Harger continued. “We want to be conference champions. And we want to make a nice run in the playoffs. Prior to ’97, nobody around here wanted to talk about the state title. It was like a curse word. Now that we have three of those and a runner-up in ’03, now it’s our ultimate goal. Even last year, 10-1, a darn good season, but did we reach our ultimate goal? No. Now that we know what it takes to get there, that’s always in our focus.”
Oakridge/Montague facts: Oakridge holds the 31-17 series advantage of Montague. Montague won seven of the first nine matchups, from 1965-1973. Nine of the 48 contests between the two teams were decided by three points or less. The last four matchups resulted in two wins apiece. Two of the last three games were decided by one point. Oakridge has won seven of the last 10 games versus Montague, with three of those games decided by one point.