By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson
For anyone who’s wondering when the 11-0 Wildcats will be challenged, the answer is Saturday.
That’s when undefeated Montague, ranked No. 2 in the state, will host undefeated Ithaca, ranked No. 1 in the state, in the Division 6 regional finals, with the winner advancing to the state semifinals.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
For the few fans out there who aren’t familiar with Ithaca, the Yellowjackets have been a Michigan high school football dynasty since 2010.
They won the Division 6 state championship in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. They were the state runner-up in 2014.
And get this – Ithaca is 36-1 in the past three seasons and 105-2 since 2010.
Last year Frankenmuth demonstrated that Ithaca does not have an automatic, annual pass to the state finals by beating the Yellowjackets 28-20 in regionals.
Montague would like to duplicate that success against the Yellowjackets on Saturday, but the Wildcats know it won’t be easy.
“It should be a very tight game,” said Montague Coach Pat Collins. “The kids want to play Ithaca, just like they wanted to play a very good Reed City team coming out of the gate (in Week 1), and they wanted to play Muskegon Catholic.
“Why would we not want to play Ithaca? If you play them (in the playoffs), that means you’re doing pretty good yourselves. The next task is to beat them.”
Ironically, Ithaca inherited the role of Division 6 state powerhouse from Montague.
The Wildcats were state semifinalists in 2005, 2006 and 2007, then won the state title in 2008 and 2009.
Montague beat Ithaca 47-16 in the state semifinals in 2009, then lost to the Yellowjackets 22-19 in overtime in the 2011 regionals.
That was the last time the Wildcats have reached the regional round, before this season.
“We were on top there for five years in a row, and they’ve been around the top for seven or eight years, and they’re at it again,” Collins said. “They’ve raised the bar in our division.
“Ithaca has dominated the decade, and we’re just trying to reach their level again. This makes the kids and our program raise our own bar. It’s the process of pushing yourself. We love the challenge.”
Ithaca is 11-0 overall and won the Tri-Valley Conference Western Division this fall. The Yellowjackets have outscored their 11 opponents by a whopping 549-78 margin.
They beat Byron 42-0 in the first round of the playoffs and Laingsburg 56-7 last week.
Ithaca is led by dual-threat senior quarterback Joey Bentley, who has completed 113 of 174 passes for 1,796 yards with 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He’s rushed for 1,200 yards and 20 touchdowns on 119 carries, for an average of more than 10 yards per carry.
Bentley has a trio of dangerous seniors receivers to throw to.
They are Seth Davis, who has 31 catches for 512 yards and five touchdowns; Adam Culp, who as 31 receptions for 473 yards and 10 touchdowns; and Devin Barnes, who has 21 catches for 459 yards and four touchdowns.
The Yellowjackets also have a dangerous secondary rushing threat in sophomore Brayden Shaw, who has ran for 531 yards and five touchdowns on 60 carries, for an average of 8.9 yards per carry.
Those are impressive numbers. But Montague, which has outscored its opponents 555-88, has some offensive weapons of its own.
Junior quarterback Sebastian Archer has completed 93 of 139 passes for 1,676 yards, 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He has rushed for 632 yards on 78 carries with 11 touchdowns.
Archer regularly targets two talented receivers – junior Kenyan Johnston, who has 43 receptions for 732 yards and eight touchdowns, and senior Jake Jancek, who has 29 catches for 561 yards and eight touchdowns.
Perhaps the most dangerous Wildcat at the moment is junior running back Bryce Stark, who has amassed 1,501 yards on 163 carries for a 9.2 yard per carry average and a remarkable 28 touchdowns.
Stark was at his best in last week’s victory over Kent City, gaining 223 yards with two touchdowns on 20 carries.
“Experience has helped him take off,” Collins said. “He was dinged up at the beginning of the year and really wasn’t firing on all cylinders. But now he’s healthy, he as experience and he’s really figured things out.
“He’s just got a burst in him that a lot of people can’t catch up with. He’s a long strider, but he’s gotten a lot better at keeping his feet moving all the time. He doesn’t stop as much as he used to. If you hesitate he will get by you.”