By Steve Gunn

Is it better for a football team to enter a big game on a mental high after winning a showdown the week before, or with grim determination following a tough loss?LSJ Logo incert

Oakridge and Whitehall will address that question on Friday when they meet in a key West Michigan Conference battle at Oakridge at 7 p.m.Sport Clips 2016 football ad

Oakridge comes into the game with momentum. The Eagles, now 4-1 on the season and 4-0 in the conference, posted a big win last Friday over archrival Ravenna, 38-7. A victory over Whitehall would keep the Eagles on target for a conference championship matchup with undefeated Montague in Week 8.

Whitehall, 4-1 overall and 3-1 in the conference, is coming off a disappointing 41-20 loss to archrival Montague. The Vikings probably need to win on Friday to maintain a realistic shot at a share of the conference title.

“They’re going to be motivated,” said Oakridge Coach Cary Harger about Whitehall. “They’re going to want to stay near the top of the conference, plus it’s our Homecoming. Everybody likes to put a damper on opponents’ Homecomings.”

Friday’s win over Ravenna was a confidence-builder for Oakridge, for several reasons. The Eagles only returned a handful of starters from last year’s playoff team, lost badly to a great Muskegon Catholic squad in Week 1, and had their Week 4 game against Shelby cancelled due to forfeit.

“We had a lot of unanswered questions,” Harger said. “After suffering the Week 1 loss we weren’t sure what was going to happen. We had some deep discussions with the kids. We told them that we as a coaching staff saw a lot of talent on this team, but it was a matter of  them trusting that the coaches were going to teach them the right things, and trusting their teammates.

“Once we had that pretty open conversation, the kids started to play better, showed more trust in the team, and started listening and responding to us more. They have responded extremely well.”

One early fear this season was that the Eagles might be one-dimensional on offense. They returned standout quarterback Brady Luttrull, a big passer who can also scramble, but few other proven performers.

Luttrull and the passing game have produced as expected. The senior quarterback is 32-of-49 through the air for 716 yards and eight touchdowns. Receivers Alex Shoop, Austin Smith and Kaleab Ehnen have combined for 23 catches, 540 yards and four touchdowns.

But the running game has provided a welcome boost, with three new starters getting the job done by committee. They have helped offset the loss of standout running back Kolin Chahorski, who graduated in the spring.

The top rusher has been impressive freshman LeRoy Quinn, who has 22 carries through four games (one of the Eagles’ wins was by forfeit) for 234 yards and four touchdowns. He’s averaging a very impressive 9.8 yards per carry. His longest run was an 88-yarder last week against Ravenna.

Senior Greg Garcia has 27 carries for 189 yards for an average of seven yards per carry. Sophomore Blake Masterman has 22 carries for 93 yards, with an average of 4.2 yards per carry.

Luttrull, who’s quite capable of ducking out of the pocket and scrambling, is the team’s second-leading rusher. He has 32 carries for 224 yards and four touchdowns.

“They’ve all done great back there,” Harger said about his offensive backfield.

Whitehall, meanwhile, will have to get back in big-game mode and put the Montague loss in the past.

That’s something the players understand, and they’ve had a good week of practice, according to Whitehall Coach Tony Sigmon.

“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” Sigmon said. “We have to play a good football team this week. We try to stay true to the ’24-hour rule’ – we celebrate victories for 24 hours or feel bad about losses for 24 hours, then get ready to roll again.”

Whitehall will not only be playing to stay in the conference race, but to keep its playoff hopes in good shape as well. The Vikings have four of the six wins needed to qualify, but play three of their last games against very good teams – Oakridge, Ravenna and currently undefeated Harper Creek.

Sigmon said his team welcomes the challenge of playing big games against quality opponents.

“There are no gimmes, no easy wins,” Sigmon said. “We’re a good football team with a tough schedule. That’s going to benefit us in the long-term. If you want to be a really good team and play for championships, you have to play really good teams.”

Whitehall has the offensive power to match Oakridge.

The running game is led by senior All-State candidate Joe Dowdell, who has 792 yards on 91 carries and eight touchdowns.

Quarterback Casey Huizenga has been a dual threat, completing 27 of 60 passes for 459 yards and six touchdowns, and rushing 60 times for 228 yards and another six TDs.

Josh Brown has been the Vikings top receiver with 10 catches for 284 yards and five touchdowns.