By Steve Gunn
Here we go again.
Montague led 15-7 at halftime. Oakridge scored two quick touchdowns early in the third quarter to take a 22-15 lead.
Montague tied the game late in the third quarter, Oakridge pulled ahead 29-22 in the fourth, than Montague tied it up again.
In overtime the Wildcats scored a touchdown on their first possession to take the lead, then intercepted an Oakridge pass in the end zone to ice the victory.
So Montague escaped with the league title in a game people will talk about for years.
“A lot of times games get hyped up and then don’t fit the bill,” said Montague Coach Pat Collins. “Last year was about as tight as it gets. We’ve had a lot of great games with Oakridge over the years, but that’s one the kids and everybody who was watching will never forget.”
“It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time,” said Oakridge Coach Cary Harger. “It was disappointing to come back and tie the score and stay with them, and then have it end the way it did. We were able to fight back and I saw a lot of toughness in our kids. We had one miscue in overtime, but it wasn’t just one play that did it. There were a few plays that didn’t go our way.”
Now comes the sequel.
Montague will visit Oakridge on Friday at 7 p.m. with the conference title again on the line.
The circumstances are a little different this year, because last fall both teams came into the showdown undefeated, overall and in the league.
This year they both have one loss, but Oakridge is unbeaten in conference play while Montague has a loss.
That means Oakridge can win the outright league title with a victory, while the Wildcats can only force the Eagles to share the crown.
That doesn’t bother Montague Coach Pat Collins or his players.
“We realize that our same goals are still there,” Collins said. “We talk about four championships – conference, district, regional and state. We know we’ll be in the playoffs now (with the required six wins), so our thoughts are on winning a conference championship.”
Harger said last year’s heartbreaking loss to Montague won’t be a huge motivational factor on Friday, because a lot of his current players were on junior varsity last fall.
He says the Eagles just want a title.
“This year, knowing we’re in first place in the conference and Montague has a loss, that’s the biggest thing right now,” Harger said. “They want to be outright conference champs and don’t want to share it.”
Heading into this season, few people were predicting a rematch between Montague and Oakridge for the conference title. Both teams lost several top players to graduation, and the West Michigan Conference had several other good teams that looked like strong candidate to take the top spot.
Yet the Wildcats and Eagles are back where they were last year.
“I wasn’t sure,” Collins said, when asked if he would have predicted a rematch with Oakridge for the title. “Of course there are a lot of talented teams in the league. We know Oakridge is always good, but we were not sure what we had, because we lost some good seniors. We’ve just taken it one game at a time.”
Harger agrees, but says good coaching on both teams has helped them transition from graduation losses.
“I might have said that it might be a lean year for us, and I didn’t know how Montague was going to be, either,” Harger said.
“But Montague has good coaches who put kids in the right places and keep them fired up to play, and I obviously see how hard my coaches work and the time they put in. Just because we have a lot of new faces didn’t mean they were going to put in less time, and it has shown.”
Both coaches say their teams have learned from earlier stumbles in their schedules.
Oakridge lost its opener against Muskegon Catholic. While there’s no shame in that – lots of teams lose to MCC – Harger wasn’t sure at first how his many inexperienced players would react.
“It would have been nice for a young team to start out with a win,” he said. “It could have taken a bad turn after that and just imploded. It’s such a positive thing that they rallied around each other. They’re such a close-knit bunch of guys. They all came together after that.”
Montague tripped up against a scrappy North Muskegon team in Week 6, 13-6. Collins said his hard-working team worked even harder after that.
“You talk about (learning from a defeat) right away after you lose, but then you give it a week after the loss to see if it really comes to fruition. Is the response real?” Collins said. “For us, that’s exactly what it did. Last week our guys were really focused, so it obviously worked out well for us.”
Montague’s offense is led by senior quarterback Dylan Stever, who has completed 58 of 112 passes with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Stever has three favorite receiving targets – Josh Weesies (21 receptions, 341 yards, four touchdowns), Kenyon Johnston (19 receptions, 337 yards, eight touchdowns) and Jake Jancek (13 catches, 269 yards, five touchdowns).
The Wildcats have multiple threats in the backfield, including sophomore running back Bryce Stark, who leads the team with 830 yards and has scored 12 touchdowns, and running back Eddie Caviedes, who has 412 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensive leaders for Montague are Joe Rupert, Zach Vannett and Samuel Shugars, who each have 59 tackles. Stark and Sebastion Archer each have four interceptions.
Oakridge is led by three-year standout quarterback Brady Luttrull, who has completed 42 of 67 passes for 933 yards and 10 touchdowns, and also leads the team in rushing with 434 yards and 10 TDs.
Luttrull has a new group of receivers this year who are doing very well – Alex Shoop (11 catches, 266 yards, two TDs), Austin Smith (nine catches, 257 yards, two TDs), Marcus Stewart (nine catches, 134 yards, two TDs) and Kaleab Smith (eight catches, 177 yards, three TDs).
Oakridge has a balanced running attack, with Greg Garcia (255 yards), LeRoy Quinn (249 yards, four touchdowns), and Blake Masterman (239 yards) sharing the workload.
Leading tacklers for the Eagles are Stewart (43), Masterman (42), Quinn (39), Brandon Wilde (37) and Koleman Wall (26).