By Steve Gunn

MONTAGUE – Montague placekicker Andrew Kooi had been waiting for another opportunity, at another big moment, for nearly a year.

His last crucial kick in a really big game did not go so well. It was during overtime in last fall’s Division 6 state semifinal game against Maple City Glen Lake.

Montague had a seemingly safe 24-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but Glen Lake came storming back, scoring two late touchdowns, including one as the regulation clock expired.

Andrew Kooi

Montague had the ball first in overtime and took a 30-24 lead when quarterback Drew Collins found the end zone from five yards out.

Kooi attempted the extra point kick, but it missed the mark.

“I was not keeping my eye on the right spot on the ball,” Kooi, who was a sophomore at the time, said about the ill-fated kick. “Coach Collins had told me to keep my eye on the ball the whole way, and let the crowd tell me whether I made it or not. But I lifted my eyes too early, and that tends to make my leg cross my body, and it went wide left.”

Despite the missed kick, the Wildcats got within one play of clinching the win and securing a spot in the state finals. Glen Lake faced fourth down from the Montague 5-yard line, and only one more defensive stop was needed for the victory.

Glen Lake quarterback Reece Hazelton threw a pass to the corner of the end zone that was caught by Justin Bonzalet. The catch appeared to be out of bounds, but after a long moment of indecision and discussion, the referees called it a touchdown.

Maple City’s extra point attempt was good, and suddenly Montague had lost one of the most stunning games in area high school football history, 31-30.

Many Montague fans were furious about the final Glen Lake touchdown, insisting that the catch was made out of bounds. Nobody was blaming Kooi for the missed extra point.

But Kooi sure blamed himself.

“I had a lot of trouble sleeping after that game, particularly the first week after that,” he said. “I was just thinking about the seniors. Some nights I got calls from those seniors, supporting me and telling me how much they loved me. That definitely helped me out, but in my mind, it was still hard to accept that my one kick cost us the game. It was heartbreaking.”

Kooi puts his foot into a kick last season. Photo/Leo Valdez

Kooi’s chance to redeem himself finally arrived last Friday, during Montague’s showdown with neighboring rival Whitehall. Both teams were undefeated and fighting for first place in the West Michigan Conference.

Montague trailed 24-21 with only 1:20 left in the game, after a fumble gave Whitehall great field position, and the Vikings responded with a go-ahead touchdown.

The Wildcats took the ensuing kickoff, and quarterback Drew Collins calmly guided them down the field. Kooi, who also starts at wingback for Montague, caught two passes on that critical drive.

The drive finally stalled at the Whitehall 9 with four ticks left on the clock. That gave Kooi the chance he had been waiting for, and this time he was the hero, cleanly making the 26-yard field goal to tie the game at 24-24 as regulation expired.

“I made sure I kept my eye on the ball,” Kooi said with a grin. “I learned from my mistakes last year.”

It was a huge moment for Kooi, and his emotions overcame him when he reached the sideline after the kick.

“I celebrated with my teammates, then went to the sideline, and I cried,” he said. “Coach (Craig) Smith was like, why are you crying, and I said it was because I was just so happy. It was kind of like redemption for me, definitely an awesome moment in my life.”

Andrew Kooi takes a practice kick before the Wildcat’s game against Whitehall on Friday. Photo/Leo Valdez

The emotional moment was short-lived, however, because Kooi and the Wildcats still had work to do.

Montague got the ball first in overtime, and Drew Collins ran it in for a 10-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Kooi’s extra point was good, giving the Wildcats a 31-24 lead.

Whitehall answered with a touchdown on its possession, the extra point was good, and the game was tied again, 31-31.

The Vikings got the ball first in the second OT, and missed a field goal attempt. Montague took possession, failed to get in the end zone, then set up for a game-winning field goal.

That put Kooi under the spotlight again, and he responded again, nailing a 23-yarder to clinch the exciting victory and keep the Wildcats unbeaten at 5-0.

The significance of Kooi’s heroic field goals was not lost on Montague head coach Pat Collins, who was emotional about his kicker after the game.

“He missed that kick in the semis, then came back and did this tonight,” Collins said. “I’m so proud of that kid.”

The field goal attempts were Kooi’s first and second of the season, because Montague usually scores touchdowns.

But Kooi said neither of his two dramatic field goals seemed much different than extra-point attempts, and he’s done well with those this season.

“I was a little more nervous, but not that nervous,” Kooi said about his game-winning field goal. “Besides one kick at Hart, I hadn’t missed an extra point in five or six months. I’m like 30 for 31 this year, so that has kind of built up my confidence over time.”

Amazingly, Kooi has only been kicking footballs for about a year and a half.

He was a longtime youth soccer player in Coldwater, Michigan, where his father coached the high school team, so he definitely knew how to use his leg.

He moved to Montague when he was 15, and not long after started kicking a football around, as well.

“One day my friend said we should go kick footballs, just for fun,” said Kooi, who also played varsity soccer this fall for Montague. “I started doing it, decided it was pretty fun, started working hard at it, and got pretty good at it.”

Collins said his confidence in Kooi’s abilities never wavered, even after the missed extra point in the state semifinals.

“He’s a tremendous kicker who puts a lot of time in,” the coach said. “Anybody who puts that much time and effort in, you have faith in.”