By Mitchell Boatman

MONTAGUE — In one of the most anticipated matchups of the season, Montague and Whitehall somehow managed to exceed the hype in their annual Battle for the Bell.

With the two undefeated, state-ranked, bitter rivals playing for at least a share of the West Michigan Conference championship, the Wildcats outlasted the Vikings 34-31 in double overtime to keep possession of the bell for the sixth straight year.

Tugg Nichols tries to find room to run for Montague. Photo/Leo Valdez

Kicker Andrew Kooi was the hero for Montague, connecting on a 26-yard field goal as time expired in regulation to tie the game at 24-24, and then a 23-yard field goal in the second overtime to win the game.

The pressure-packed kicks served as redemption for Kooi, who missed a crucial extra point attempt in last year’s state semifinal loss to Maple City Glen Lake.

“I was just thinking about the seniors,” Kooi said. “I want to go out there and make the clutch kicks and win the games for them. It feels rewarding. With the semifinal game last year, losing to Glen Lake because I missed the PAT, then making those kicks today, I was overwhelmed.”

“He puts a tremendous amount of time in, he’s a great kid,” said a choked-up Montague Coach Pat Collins about his kicker. “He missed that kick in the semis and came back and did this tonight. I’m so proud of that kid.”

The Wildcats, ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 6, improved to 5-0 on the season, while the Vikings, ranked No. 8 in Division 4, fell to 4-1.

It was a night full of great moments and effort for the Vikings, but they fell just short.

“The kids did a wonderful job all game long,” Whitehall head coach Tony Sigmon said. “We needed to have a chance in the second half and we put ourselves in that position. We thought we did enough and we made enough plays to get us over the hump, but we had a couple of key mistakes and that cost us the game.”

Alec Pruett rushes the ball for Whitehall. Photo/Leo Valdez

With the win, Montague clinches at least a share of the conference title, and can win the crown outright with a victory next week over North Muskegon.

“Our league is so tough,” Collins said. “Our league year-in and year-out prepares you for the playoffs and just grinds you. Next week, we have to take care of business and have another celebration.”

Montague got on the board first, scoring on its first drive of the game. Sam Smith punched in a three-yard score, the first touchdown allowed by Whitehall this season, to put Montague up 7-0 with 42 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Whitehall didn’t trail for long, using some trickery to score just three plays later. The Vikings set up for a punt, but Nate Bolley took the snap, evaded the defense, broke a few tackles and sprinted 77 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 with 10:11 left in the second quarter.

The Wildcats took back the lead on their next drive, with quarterback Drew Collins scoring on a six-yard rush. Montague tacked on two points on a fake PAT, with Tugg Nichols finding Rodney Brassfield for the conversion pass. Montague led 15-7 with 5:32 remaining until the half.

Whitehall tacked on a score before halftime on a drive featuring two fourth down conversions. Brodie Fogus hauled in a tipped pass from Andrew Durbin in the end zone for an 18-yard score.

Montague’s No. 25 Sam Smith gets extra yards on the rush. Photo/Leo Valdez

Montague led 15-14 at the break.

The Vikings forced a three-and-out to start the second half, then marched down the field to set Taden Brandel up for a field goal attempt. Brandel knocked in a 35-yarder to give Whitehall its first lead, 17-15, with 2:49 remaining in the third.

Montague retook the lead on a two-yard run from Collins with 11:06 to play. The two-point conversion failed, leaving the score 21-17.

Whitehall turned the ball over on downs with 4:34 to play, but forced a fumble on the first play of Montague’s next possession and took over at the 24-yard line.

Five plays later, on a fourth-and-one from the four-yard-line, Bolley took a jet sweep, broke a tackle and dove for the pylon to score a go-ahead touchdown. The extra point made the score 24-21 Whitehall with 1:20 to play.

“He had a wonderful game,” Sigmon said of Bolley, a sophomore. “I can’t emphasize enough the way he came to play tonight. He just worked his tail off the whole time and played his heart out — a lot of kids did.”

Collins marched Montague down the field in the final minutes to set up Kooi’s tying field goal.

Montague got the ball first in overtime, and Collins ran in a 10-yard score on the first play. Whitehall responded with a four-yard score from Bolley to tie the game and send it to a second overtime.

The Vikings had a 34-yard-field goal attempt in the second OT, but the kick fell short, setting up Kooi’s game-winning kick on Montague’s next possession.

Collins ran for 95 yards and three scores while passing for 83 yards for Montague. Kooi was the leading receiver with 37 yards on five catches. Smith ran for 65 yards while Izac Jark had an interception on defense.

Bolley ran for 108 yards and three touchdowns to lead Whitehall. Durbin threw for 107 yards and ran for 54 more. Fogus caught five passes for 70 yards.