By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
MONTAGUE – It wasn’t that long ago that the Montague Wildcat varsity football program was the most dominant Div. 6 team in the state.
Riding high from a 13-1 record during 2008’s state title season, the school’s first, the Wildcats did one better in 2009. Led by a whole host of seriously talented players, including current Central Michigan University quarterback Cody Kater, the Wildcats went a perfect 14-0, defeating Monroe St. Mary Catholic 24-21 for a second-straight title.
Winning two titles in a row doesn’t just affect the trophy-winning student-athletes, their fans and the school they represent. It sends ripples through the entire program, touching anyone who has ever played, and certainly the ones yet to play, for the school.
So while the 2008 and 2009 football teams were off winning championships, a flock of middle school kids saw and what was possible with the name Montague draped across their chests and began dreaming of the time when they would play for the Wildcats.
Interestingly, it was during those championship years that Montague head coach Pat Collins noticed a small figure running up and down the bleachers all by his lonesome.
“I asked someone,” Collins explained, ‘Who is that kid?’ They told me, ‘Chris Carroll.’”
Collins continued, “I knew Chris, lived down the street from me. So after I see him running the bleachers one day, as I’m driving home, there he is again, running along the road, running all by himself.”
Collins added, “That’s Chris Carroll.”
“I definitely wanted to be like those guys,” said Carroll, who now is the team’s feature running back and starting corner. “I definitely wanted to be as good as them, and it made me play even harder. It made me want to reach a certain level once we got up here. It’s crazy that we’re here already.”
‘Here’ is the fourth game of his senior season, Friday’s showdown against undefeated West Michigan Conference rival Shelby. Montague sits at 2-1 overall and 1-1 in the league.
That one loss was a real doozy or, perhaps, could better be described as a bone-deep bruise that is just now healing. The Wildcats had every intention of testing the Eagles, who were coming off an emotional, season-opening victory over Grand Rapids West Catholic – the team that beat Oakridge in last year’s playoffs, a defeat that spoiled a perfect season. Instead of beating the Eagles, though, the Wildcats’ watched as their collective wheels came off, resulting in a 41-14 loss on Montague’s own grass.
“Going in, I thought we had a pretty good chance (against Oakridge),” said Carroll. “We just started so bad that you could tell it was over before halftime.”
He insists the squad is past it.
“We recovered well last week against Ravenna,” said Carroll of his team’s 47-20 win over the Bulldogs. “We’ve had a good game and another hard week of practice so we all feel like we’re past it now.”
Collins said high school kids handle that kind of thing better than some of the older folks.
“Age does something to your memory, especially when it comes to winning or losing games,” he laughed. “My son in fifth grade, if his team loses, they’re over it in 20 minutes. In high school, those kids get over it in a couple hours. For us, the coaches and the fans, it can take years to get over a tough loss.”
Another ripple of all those state titles – one that you might not expect – is the feeling that maybe those teams of the past were just better than the current crop. What kids don’t understand, said Collins, is that every team feels that way, like they won’t measure up
“Kids always want to work toward a state title,” said Collins. “But because the current group always look to the groups just ahead of them, sometimes they may feel insecure with the group they’re with. They think they could never be as good as those kids who did this or that, won a state title, got some recognition. I have to pull out strength records to show them and say, ‘You see how that guy you thought was so big benched what you bench now? Or I show a kid, ‘You are as fast Cody Kater.’ They can’t believe it. Those players from the past always loom larger in our kids’ minds.
“It’s a constant battle for the coaches to try to eliminate those negative thoughts,” he continued. “Instead of worrying about those other teams, we try to let them know that they need to be their own team.”
One of the reasons this year’s team is set on making a name for themselves is that guys like Carroll refuse to let the negative negate the positive. He’s chosen to focus on what he thinks his teammates do well.
“From top to bottom, this year’s team is just more reliable overall,” explained Carroll, who went on to say that this year’s motto is ’11-in-1’. “We get more contributions from more guys. We’ve all played together for so long, I think of this year’s team as one unit. We don’t have any superstars like we had Brandon (Moore) or (Jacob) Marsh last year. This year, there’s no one guy to ride to the finish so we all have to rely on the guys next to us.”
Despite what Carroll said about the squad lacking star power, Collins insists his senior running back, whom he calls “a natural tailback with excellent vision,” is exactly the kind of guy the team is going to need to rely on to win games.
“Chris is just tenacious when he runs,” said Collins. “He won’t necessarily bull you over but he’s going to do whatever it takes to gain yards. He’ll spin, he’ll cut, he’s going to do everything he can, fight, scratch or claw, to get extra yards. He’s not afraid to get vertical – instead of just bouncing it outside or around guys – and take it up field. He knows how ground is gained and utilizes that.”
For the Wildcats, Shelby represents the fourth rung in a season opening, five-game stretch has tested the team’s resolve. Oakridge in Week 2, Shelby in Week 4 and then rival Whitehall in Week 5, plus wins over Orchard View and Ravenna, all mark significant milestones the team is using to measure its improvement.
The Shelby game invokes for Collins a decidedly geologic connection.
Describing the clay deposits that start in Montague and run alongside the Lake Michigan coast to just south of Silver Lake Sand Dunes does a good job of explaining the connection between the two communities; like a vein of metal that, though unseen from the surface, runs deep and long from Point A to Point B.
“A lot of the kids in Shelby are a lot like the kids we have here in Montague,” said Collins. “The only division between us and them is a school district line. The people are a lot alike. I’ve always respected the Shelby kids since I started coaching here, and (Shelby head coach) Lorenzo (Rodriguez) has done a great job of pulling all of it together, to take the talent they already had there and making them into good teams. We have high respect for them, and we hold this game as big as any we’ll have this season in the league.”
“It’s a big game,” he said. “They’ve become a big rival for us,”
For Collins, even if the Tigers hand Montague its second loss of the season, players like Carroll on the roster will insure that the Montague playoff-appearance streak (now at 12-straight seasons) is most likely safe for another year. If they do make in 13 straight, GR West Catholic or a rematch against Oakridge could be in the cards. Luckily for the Wildcats, Carroll will be there leading the way.
“Chris is emerging as the guy we all knew he would be,” said Collins. “He knows this is his final year, and he’s taking it very seriously. He’s going to give it his best, and his best is really good.”
“We want to win out, finish 8-1 definitely, and then make a deep playoff run,” said Carroll. “And that starts with beating Shelby.”