By Nate Thompson
MONTAGUE — In a rag to riches type of season, Montague has finally struck gold.
From the beginning, the Wildcats have labeled 2015 as a “season of redemption,” their opportunity to erase the painful memories of a 2-7 record from a year ago, which included a humiliating 44-0 loss to West Michigan Conference rival Oakridge.
The victory kept Montague’s perfect season alive at 8-0, and clinched the program’s first West Michigan Conference championship since 2009. It’s also their biggest turnaround in wins since 2000-2001, when the Wildcats went from 3-6 to 10-2.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Montague senior Jacob Buchberger, whose interception on a quick slant in the end zone sealed the Wildcats’ victory in overtime. It was his third interception of the contest.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime type of game to be a part of,” he added. “Alongside my family, my brothers, you can never beat it. Nothing can replace this.”
Still, for a team that seemed to be down in the dumps just a year ago, how have the Wildcats elevated themselves to the pinnacle?
Montague coach Pat Collins said it’s been a simple formula, but featured an extraordinary amount of hard work.
“When you invest in something as hard as this group of kids has invested, it’s hard to quit,” he said. “It’s the same old things that people always talk about: It’s hard work and dedication in the offseason, it’s leadership, it’s team chemistry, it’s guys caring about one another. Those types of things are not at all cliche. That’s the real deal with this group.”
While the collective group of Wildcats have become bigger, stronger and faster, it’s their offensive juggernauts who willed them to victory on Friday.
Aside from his three critical interceptions from his safety position on defense, Buchberger also put his team on his back at quarterback, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard sneak in overtime as he kept his lower body chugging as he slipped past a pair of Eagles’ defenders.
He finished with 92 yards rushing and three touchdowns, and also threw for a game-tying touchdown with under five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“This guy does it all,” Collins said. “I tell you what, if I was coaching at the college level, I’d try to get him on my team the fastest way possible. He gets in these moments on the biggest stage and he takes it to another level.”
Oakridge, which rallied back from a 15-0 second-quarter deficit, had a chance to reclaim the lead in regulation.
But Buchberger got in the way.
The Eagles drove down to the Montague’s six-yard line with 2:08 left, and head coach Carey Harger dialed up a very reliable play – a jump ball to standout senior wide receiver James Cooper III. The 6-foot-3 Cooper had the ball in his grasp in the air, but didn’t come down with it in the end zone.
Instead Buchberger snagged it, forcing the game into overtime.
“I just tried to jump as high as I could,” Buchberger said. “(Cooper) had it at first, and I luckily grabbed it when he was coming down and pulled it away.”
Buchberger and the ‘Cats struck first in overtime, needing just two plays before scoring.
Two plays later, with Oakridge on offense, Buchberger’s instincts again took over and he snatched a pass that was tipped by Wildcats’ lineman Joe Marsh.
The game-ending pick that ignited a wild celebration.
Buchberger, who appeared to have injured his hand following a late hit by the Eagles late in the third quarter, said he felt no pain after the contest. He was likely still floating on air.
“We knew in the off-season, every day when we were out here working, doing 100-yard sprints on this field, we knew we had something special,” Buchberger said. “We just have never let that (feeling) go. We focused on us, nobody else.”