By Andrew Johnson
MONTAGUE – The incredible story of Montague’s football season will finish writing itself on Friday when the Wildcats take on Jackson Lumen Christi at 4:30 p.m. in the Division 6 state finals at Detroit’s Ford Field.
While most may assume the story began back in August, when the Wildcats went through grueling preseason practices, that isn’t quite the case.
The story of this team traces its roots back to the 2014 football season.
That was the year the Wildcats posted a disappointing 2-7 record, which was unheard of for a program that had made the playoffs every year since 2000, and won state championships in 2008 and 2009.
“That was just a complete surprise,” said Montague Coach Pat Collins about the 2014 season. “We knew we had a team that could compete and be just like many of the teams that we’ve had. But we just had a debacle of a year. We had a lot of injuries and weird things happening. It was a mess, and we had a lot of issues going on that people didn’t know about.”
Those issues had to be resolved, and with the help of returning players in 2015, the program turned itself around by going 10-1.
“It really woke up the juniors in 2014,” said Collins. “They reshaped what we were going to do. They just decided that those things in 2014 weren’t what we were about. We made some hard, fast rules, set some expectations, and we moved forward. It comes from the kids and it’s been building ever since then.”
The Montague program has been on a steady rise since 2014, making the playoffs each of the past four seasons and advancing to the regional finals last season.
The Wildcats lost that game 33-23 to perennial power Ithaca, but it had some value. Collins thinks that big-game experience will come in handy on Friday against Jackson Lumen Christi, the back-to-back Division 6 state champion.
Montague also had some pressure-filled games earlier this season, against Oakridge in a showdown for the West Michigan Conference title (a last-second 25-24 victory), and a pair of losses to powerful teams from Reed City (34-14) and Portland (27-20) in the first and last weeks of the regular season, respectively.
In short, Montague is more than familiar with playing great teams.
“In the end, it’s just another game for us,” Collins said about the state finals. “We have a lot of kids who’ve been in big moments.”
Despite the loss to Portland in Week 9, the Wildcats rebounded impressively when the playoffs began, and plowed their way to the finals with wins over Fennville (49-20), Newaygo (48-14), Schoolcraft (30-14) and last week against previously-unbeaten Traverse City St. Francis (14-7).
One big challenge for Montague will be shutting down Lumen Christi’s senior running back Nick Thomas, who has averaged over 10 yards per carry this season while rushing for 29 touchdowns.
“They’re a powerful team,” said Collins about the Titans. “They’re run-oriented and they do a good job in the trenches. They have a lot of talented players on their team and really don’t have any holes. They are a sound, disciplined team that knows how to win.”
The Wildcats just faced a run-heavy team in Traverse City St. Francis last week. and the defense did a great job. But the Wildcats will have to be more mindful of a passing threat on Friday.
The Titans have senior quarterback Joe Barrett, who has thrown for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Lumen Christi, 12-0, has outscored opponents 450-132.
“They’re a little more comprehensive than St. Francis,” Collins said. “St. Francis was going to run, run, run, while Jackson Lumen Christi has a few more positions to throw the ball around. They’ll throw it if they need to, and we’re well prepared for that as well.”
Jackson Lumen Christi’s defenders will also have some challenges on Friday, because the Wildcats can hurt opponents in a number of ways.
Montague features senior running back Bryce Stark, who has totaled 1,579 yards and 25 touchdowns this season. Senior Sebastian Archer, the former quarterback who overcame injuries to play a key role as a running back this year, has 558 yards and 13 touchdowns.
And Montague’s passing attack is improved this fall, with sophomore quarterback Drew Collins coming into his own with 1,805 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air. His top target is senior receiver Kenyan Johnston, who has 27 catches for 808 yards and eight touchdowns.
Collins has grown from working with assistant coach Cody Kater, a former state championship quarterback for Montague.
“He’s a smart kid who has worked hard,” Coach Collins said about his son. “He’s a student of the game and that helps him. Cody Kater is excellent with him and teaches him things every day. Overall, he’s got a lot going for him because of that, and at this point, his age really isn’t a factor.”
The fact that Collins will be coaching his son in a state championship game on means a lot to the family.
“No question,” the coach said. “It’s actually something Drew and I don’t talk about much, honestly. We’re pretty quiet about it, and talk about more non-football stuff usually. But it will be special to have him alongside me.”