By Steve Gunn
The Wildcat-Crusader matchup is one of two LSJ Spotlight games this week. The other is North Muskegon at Orchard View, with the Norse trying to secure their sixth victory of the season and get into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
LocalSportsJournal.com will also have reports from the other 12 games involving area teams, including an important battle at Reeths-Puffer, where the Rockets will also try to clinch a playoff berth in what could be a close game against conference rival Kenowa Hills.
The undefeated and No. 1 ranked Muskegon Big Reds will attempt to sew up the O-K Black Conference championship at Jenison, which needs another win to qualify for the playoffs. Playoff-bound Whitehall heads south to play undefeated and state-ranked Battle Creek Harper Creek.
Ravenna will battle a Grant squad that’s also hunting for that magical sixth win to make the postseason, and Oakridge will visit Berrien Springs in a matchup of 6-2 teams.
On the other end of the spectrum, two games will involve four 0-8 teams that would very much like to wrap up their seasons on a positive note – Hesperia at Shelby and Grand Haven at Grand Rapids Union.
It should be a really interesting Week 9.
Don’t forget to log on to LocalSportsJournal.com for the state playoff matchups when they are announced on Sunday night!
Montague (8-0) at Muskegon Catholic (7-0), Friday 7 p.m.
Both teams come in with perfect records and mostly lopsided victories. Montague is the champion of the West Michigan Conference while Muskegon Catholic won the title in the Lakes 8.
Muskegon Catholic, which has won four state championships in a row, is ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 8. Montague is ranked third in the state in Division 6.
Muskegon Catholic is riding a 27-game winning streak, dating back to the 2015 season.
The Crusaders, who did not have a Week 1 opponent, haven beaten Frankfort (31-6), Orchard View (43-7), Ludington (55-7), Lake Michigan Catholic (55-13), Muskegon Heights (32-0), Manistee (42-6) and Hesperia (49-9).
They have outscored their opponents 307-48.
Montague has beaten Reed City (48-14), Shelby (76-0), Mason County Central (65-0), North Muskegon (48-7), Whitehall (46-44), Hart (59-0), Oakridge (40-0) and Ravenna (55-0).
The Wildcats have outscored their opponents 437-65.
Almost unbelievably, this will be the first time that the two teams have squared off.
The game certainly seems like a natural rivalry. The Crusaders and Wildcats have had two of the most successful programs in the area for years, and the schools are both in Muskegon County. Why wouldn’t each team want to test itself against a similar power located right down the highway?
“That’s a good question – I don’t know,” said Montague Coach Pat Collins, when asked why the teams have never met. “It’s all about playing quality opponents and preparing for the playoffs. Plus I just think we want to live, and create some great memories for these kids, with a game like this. That’s what it’s all about.
“This will be great for the county, fun for the kids and a test for the playoffs. It really is a much-needed challenge for both teams. It’s good to be challenged. You improve when you’re challenged.”
Cynics might point out a few logical reasons why MCC and Montague might have continued to avoid each other.
First of all, they’re not in the same conference, so they don’t have to go head-to-head, like Muskegon and Mona Shores.
The game is also coming on the final weekend of the regular season, with pre-districts looming the following week. While both teams are guaranteed playoff spots, the loser could fall a bit on the playoff seeding chart, and risk of having to play a postseason game on the road, rather than home.
Higher-seeded teams gets the home field advantage in pre-districts and districts.
MCC Coach Steve Czerwon says both teams will be pushing hard to guarantee home-field advantage in the playoffs, and that will make the competition all the more fun.
He also admits that MCC has a tough time finding non-conference games. Potential opponents have little to gain in the playoff seeding point system by beating a small Division 8 school, and a lot to lose if they don’t get a victory. And most teams don’t beat MCC.
“We didn’t have a Week 1 game,” Czerwon said. “We’re very fortunate someone said yes. This will be a great help preparing for the playoffs. The big thing on the line will be getting the home field advantage in the playoffs.”
Both teams feature explosive offenses and extremely stingy defenses.
MCC is led by super sophomore quarterback Cameron Martinez, who has rushed for a team-leading 767 yards and 13 touchdowns,and averages 109.6 yards per game on the ground.
Martinez has also been efficient in the passing game, completing 30 of 56 throws for 468 yards and five touchdowns.
The Crusaders have a deep and diverse running attack beyond Cameron Martinez. Three players – Tommy Watts, Carson St. Amour and Dawson Steigman have each rushed or at least 200 yards, and Steigman has found the end zone seven times on the ground and caught one touchdown pass.
The MCC defense, which has yet to surrender a point in the first quarter this season, is led by Nolan Convertini (35 tackles) Avery Evans-Davis (33), and Jacob Martinez, who has 26 tackles, including three QB sacks.
Cameron Martinez and Jackson Riegler each have three interceptions for the Crusaders.
Running the Montague offense is junior quarterback Sebastian Archer, who has passed for 1,417 yards and 15 touchdowns this season and rushed for another 448 yards and 12 TDs.
Archer has two very strong receivers to target – Kenyan Johnston (33 catches, 574 yards, seven touchdowns) and Jake Jancek (23 receptions,, 439 yards, six touchdowns).
The Wildcats’ top running back is Bryce Stark, who has 101 carries for 899 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Defensively, Sam Shugars leads the Wildcats in the tackling department with 80 stops. Blake Jones is second with 53, followed by Joe Rupert (52), and Joe Scott (51).
Rupert leads the team with four sacks while Johnston has four interceptions.
North Muskegon (5-3) at Orchard View (3-5), Friday 7 p.m.
The Norse knew they had a good team headed into the season.
They also knew they would face the usual string of powerful opponents in the challenging West Michigan Conference, and might struggle to get the six victories necessary to clinch a playoff spot.
That’s exactly what has happened over the first eight weeks of the season.
The Norse have beaten Hesperia (28-27), Ravenna (28-7), Mason County Central (45-0), Shelby (49-6) and Hart (28-0), and lost to conference powers Oakridge (42-14), Montague (48-7) and Whitehall (25-14).
Now it all comes down to this game for North Muskegon. A win would guarantee the team’s first playoff berth in eight years. A loss would leave the Norse on the edge of elimination. Five-win teams sometimes sneak in to the playoffs, but it doesn’t happen very frequently.
Earlier in the year, some Norse fans might have looked ahead on the schedule and counted the OV game as a likely win, because the Cardinals started the season 0-4.
But Orchard View has gotten much better as the season has progressed. The Cardinals have won three of their last four games, including three straight against Manistee (50-28), Ludington (54-14) and Muskegon Heights (25-24).
OV lost to a good Benton Harbor team 46-8 last Friday.
Unlike Montague and Muskegon Catholic, which have never played before, this is actually an older rivalry that went dormant for quite some time. The Norse and Cardinals have played each other 10 times in the past, but not since 1986, when North Muskegon won 22-12.
North Muskegon and Orchard View opened the season against each other every year between 1979 and 1986, and also met in two previous years – 1963 and 1964.
The Norse lead the series 6-4, but the games have almost always been close. with the final spread being within seven points six times.
Other Week 9 games
McBain (6-2) at Fremont (0-8)
Mona Shores (7-1) at Fruitport (2-6)
Grand Haven (0-8) at GR Union (0-8)
Hart (1-7) at White Cloud (2-6)
Hesperia (0-8) at Shelby (0-8)
Holton (3-5) at GR NorthPointe Christian (5-3)
Kent City (8-0) at Tri-County (1-7)
Ludington (3-5) at Mason County Central (2-6)
Muskegon (8-0) at Jenison (5-3)
River Rouge (6-2) at Muskegon Heights (3-5)
Oakridge (6-2) at Berrien Springs (6-2)
Ravenna (3-5) at Grant (5-3)
Kenowa Hills (3-5) at Reeths-Puffer (5-3)
Comstock Park (5-3) at Spring Lake (0-8)
Whitehall (6-2) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (8-0)