By Steve Gunn
A first down would have given the Vikings a chance to take the lead and steal the win. But the Wildcats stopped them, ran out the clock and won 29-28.
That will be a tough act to follow. But Friday’s renewal of the “Battle for the Bell,” slated for 7 p.m. at Montague, could end up being a classic in its own right.
The Wildcats and Vikings both come in 4-0 overall and 3-0 in the West Michigan Conference. There’s a lot on the line besides the usual neighborhood bragging rights. The winner could eventually emerge as the conference champion, and both teams would like to make the playoffs and have home-field advantage.
“This is a football game that’s important,” said Whitehall Coach Tony Sigmon. ‘It’s the next step to the playoffs for the team that wins. There’s a lot on this game outside of bragging rights.”
Few people probably expected Montague or Whitehall to be quite so good this year. Both teams lost a lot of talented seniors to graduation last spring.
The Wildcats returned seven starters on each side of the ball, but lost two All-Staters – quarterback Jacob Buchberger and fullback Cameron Brayman. The Vikings were hit even harder by graduation, with only two starters back on offense and four on defense.
But both teams simply inserted a bunch of new starters and continued to roll along, making this year’s showdown one of the most anticipated in years.
Whitehall opened the season with an exciting 50-47 win over Kelloggsville, and has beaten North Muskegon (35-14), Mason County Central (43-7) and Hart (52-14) in conference play.
Montague opened with a 51-14 non-league win over Orchard View, then beat Ravenna (35-7), Shelby (53-3) and Mason County Central (34-0) in conference action.
“I think that’s a credit to both coaching staffs and both programs,” Sigmon said about the ability of both teams to excel with so many new faces. “High expectations have been what we’ve been trying to be all about, and what Coach Collins and Montague have always had.
“The idea is not to have just one good class, but one good program, and good programs reload.”
Montague Coach Pat Collins said there’s no way to tell, year to year, how the rivalry will stack up.
“Each year is just so unique in itself,” said Collins, whose team went undefeated in the regular season last year and won the conference title. “You just never know. Of all the years, you might not have picked this one (for both teams to be undefeated), but Whitehall has played very well, they’re a very solid team and we’re real similar.
“Our young guys have stepped up well and played big, and our seniors have done very well, carrying over the leadership we had last year. We just have a bunch of good, solid high school football players.”
Following last season’s heartbreaking loss, it would make sense for Whitehall to be out for revenge on Friday. But Sigmon said that’s not much of a factor, mostly because this year’s team has a lot of players who were not on the field last season.
“We’ve been watching a bit of film from that game, but not from a revenge perspective,” Sigmon said. “We looked at it from the perspective of what Montague did well, what we could have done better, and how we could have coached better. A lot of the players who were in that game have graduated.”
Sigmon also denied that his team is motivated by the recent one-sided history of the rivalry. Montague has won 8 of the last 10 games, with Whitehall only winning in 2006 and 2014.
“The one thing we try to be is future-focused,” the coach said. “This is my fourth year here as head coach, so for us we are 1-2 in the series with an opportunity to be 2-2. What happened 10 years in the past, we have no control over that. When you look in the past too much, you can forget where you’re going.”
Sigmon acknowledged that the Montague rivalry is always exciting, and his team is pumped up about playing in a clash of two unbeaten teams.
“When we were 1-8 we wanted to have a game that was relevant and to be in the spotlight,” Sigmon said. “Then at the beginning of this week we were worried about distractions, like the extra media coverage, but about halfway through Monday I said ‘Let’s embrace this and have fun with it. This is where we wanted to be.’”
Collins said he expects a great game again, which would probably be the case even if it weren’t a showdown between unbeaten teams.
“We are both compatible teams and we’re expecting another good game,” he said. “A lot of times this game is close regardless of what the records are. It makes for great entertainment.
“There’s been a little more pop in people’s steps at practice. Last night we had an assistant coach lose his mind a little bit at practice, and the kids were laughing and saying ‘It must be Whitehall week.’ The intensity is up there. We’re a little on edge – not nervous – just intense. It’s just the nature of the beast in this great rivalry.”