By Nate Thompson

MONTAGUE –  At small schools, gaining an edge on the football field begins with identifying and developing young talent, and working around the calendar to excel.

They do those things at Montague, and the results are obvious, most noticeably on the offensive side of the ball.

The Wildcats, who are 5-0 on the season and 3-0 in the challenging West Michigan Conference, have put up an amazing 283 points this season for an out-of-this-world average of nearly 57 a game.

That kind of production has Montague ranked No. 3 in Division 7 in the Michigan Associated Press state poll.

Montague’s latest offensive outburst came in arguably one of the more thrilling games in the history of its storied rivalry against neighboring Whitehall, a 46-44 victory last Friday that wasn’t decided until the final seconds.

Although they have key conference battles remaining against Oakridge and Ravenna, and a very intriguing non-conference clash against defending state champion Muskegon Catholic in Week 9, the Wildcats aren’t shy about saying where they want their season to end – in the state finals at Ford Field in Detroit.

“As players, you don’t want to ignore that, because that’s our No. 1 goal and that’s what you play for,” said junior quarterback Sebastian Archer. “But we still have to go out there for seven or eight more weeks and execute. At the end of the day though, that goal is in our heads.”

The Wildcat attack starts with Archer, who inherited the job of directing the offense this fall, after two years of playing important but less visible varsity roles.

Sebastian Archer gets ready to apply the stiff arm on the rush. Photo/Joe Lane

He has answered the challenge admirably, passing for 793 yards and 10 touchdowns so far this season, with just one interception. Archer had a huge game against Whitehall, completing 14 of 20 passes for 217 yards and four touchdowns.

Montague Coach Pat Collins said Archer was moved up to varsity as a freshman due to a lack of team depth, but he’s developed rapidly at the QB position, particularly when it comes to the passing game.

“He was more of a tailback early on, but he’s been throwing in our mini camps since he’s been in middle school,” Collins said. “He wasn’t always the best thrower. His arm strength wasn’t always there, but he’s made excellent strides. He’s worked with (assistant coach) Cody Kater and has really transformed himself into a complete quarterback.”

Archer said training at “Camp Kater” is demanding. It involves early-morning Monday and Friday off-season sessions with Kater, the former Wildcat all-state quarterback and two-time state champion. Archer said they work on skills like pocket awareness and footwork, and most importantly for him, developing arm strength.

Bryce Stark looks back at the Whitehall defense. Photo/Tim Reilly

Ironically, some of the QB training is done on the basketball court.

“We’ll start at the free-throw line and make three hard throws at the net,” he said. “Then we’ll keep moving back until we’re all the way across the court. It’s only nine passes, but when your arm is dead tired and you’re still throwing hard, it helps you.”

Opponents can’t key on Archer, because Montague has many other weapons on offense.

On the ground the Wildcats rumble with junior Bryce Stark, who has 479 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He’s also dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.

Stark ran for 127 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries against Whitehall, and also caught a key touchdown pass.

“He’s just so versatile,” Collins said about Stark. “We’ll put him in empty sets (out wide) and that’s how he scored one of his touchdowns against Whitehall, catching it down the seam. We’re trying to utilize him in space, but we feel there’s no one who can go up against him out of the backfield, either.”

Kenyan Johnston (21) prepares to field a punt for Montague. Photo/Leo Valdez

If Archer isn’t throwing to Stark, he has big-play targets Kenyon Johnston and Jake Jancek at wide receiver.

Johnston, yet another talented junior, had a huge performance against Whitehall, with nine catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

“Kenyon is a great athlete,” Collins said. “He’s not going to go down on the first hit. And if one guy is able to tackle him, they’ve done a heck of a job wrapping up.”

Archer said the Wildcats’ offensive prowess begins with dominant play on the line, which includes returning starters Luke Marsh, Cole Eilers, and Sam Shugars, as well as tight end Joe Scott.

The linemen learn the basics of Montague’s zone combo blocking scheme by attending the Hog Farm Lineman Camp at the school, led by veteran line coach Dick Comar.

Comar, an inductee in the Michigan High School Football Association’s Coaches Hall of Fame, has mentored linemen at the high school, college and professional level. He’s worked for Michigan State University, the Buffalo Bills and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.

“With Dick, it’s about breaking it down to the physics of the position,” Collins said. “It all boils down to leverage, and with combo blocking, the thought is that it’s easier to move a guy off the line with two instead of one. It’s pretty simple.”

The Wildcats’ dedication to offseason development has made Collins believe they can join the ranks of the school’s champions of the past.

Montague won state football championships in 2008 and 2009, and reached the semifinals in 2006 and 2007.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around some final-four level teams,” Collins said. “This is my 14th year, and I believe we have a really good chunk of talent, comparable to some former teams here.

”There are certain circumstances that occur that can knock you down to the top 10 or 20 in your division. We have to stay healthy and keep it together and all that, but this team has a good chance to reach that level.”