By Greg Gielczyk
At least a share of the West Michigan Conference title will be riding on the outcome of Friday’s game between the Montague Wildcats and the host Whitehall Vikings.
Gametime is 7 p.m.
The visiting Wildcats enter this week leading the conference with a 5-0 record, while the Vikings are tied for second place with Oakridge at 4-1 each. Interestingly, all three teams are 6-1 overall.
Montague head coach Jason Dennett said the Wildcats’ focus defensively will be stopping the Vikings’ vaunted running game, which has carried them to their success this season.
On the flip side, Dennett says the Wildcats must be balanced on offense with the ability to throw the ball as well as run it effectively.
“We have to limit mistakes,” Dennett said. “We need to continue to do a good job of limiting penalties and turnovers.”
The Wildcats have had an extra week to prepare for the Vikings, but Dennett isn’t sure if that’s an advantage or disadvantage for his team.
“I would have preferred to have a game,” said Dennett. “But, it did allow us to have some rest going into the week. We started to prepare last week by slowly incorporating our game plan and now can fine tune things this week.
“Their offense has been great all season, especially running the ball,” Dennett said. “We think we can match up well with them and have a good plan in place to slow that running game.”
Special teams will also play a role, Dennett said.
“Last year, they had the long fake punt that kind of turned the game around,” Dennett said. “So things like that can be a difference-maker. Also, just staying mistake-free and limiting penalties will play a big role.”
Whitehall head coach Tony Sigmon said the Vikings just need to play their style of football and execute.
“Line play will be a big key to this game,” Sigmon said. “Both teams have looked dominant at times.
“I think field position will also be a big factor,” Sigmon said. “Anytime we can flip the field, we need to. Montague has an excellent kicker. Our preparation for Montague is trying to find balance, with limiting the noise of the game and focusing on the process of winning like we have done for each week.”
Stopping high-powered Whitehall running back Alec Pruett will be a tall order for Montague’s defense.
“For starters, Alec is a great football player,” Sigmon said. “Alec had a good junior season, but is playing at a different level this year.
“The bulk of our offensive line returning from 2020 really allows us to grow upon the successes from last year, not to mention having our core group of receivers backs helps, too.”
But the Vikings’ passing game has become another weapon opposing defenses also must honor.
“Kyle (Stratton) is doing a great job running the offense and is starting to have a lot of confidence throwing and distributing the ball to all our receivers,” Sigmon said.
Sigmon said the game could potentially have a number of momentum swings and his squad
needs to stay on an even-keel as much as possible.
The rivalry means a lot to the Whitehall community, Sigmon says.
“There has been a standard of excellence set by both programs now for the better part of the last 10 years, so it adds to the rivalry and acts as a gauge for how you can stack up to other programs in different divisions moving forward in the playoffs,” Sigmon said.
“It will be interesting how this game impacts the playoff picture for both teams, win or lose, because of the new point system. Having this as a home game is nice, but both teams travel well because of the community connection, so game sometimes feel like a neutral site from time to time.”
Montague won state titles in 2008, 2009 and 2020 and was runner-up in 1992 and 2018. It has won 18 conference titles since 1950. The Wildcats lead the series, 64-48-2.
Sigmon said that winning a share of the conference title would mean a lot to his players.
“We would be able to get a return on the investment our families have made with 7-on-7’s, camps, lifting and sacrifices made to get there,” Sigmon said.
Although this is Dennett’s first year as the Wildcats’ head coach, he said he can already tell how the rivalry is different.
“It’s a game the kids have been looking forward to all season and I can see how important it is to them,” Dennert said. “This is a big game for us in the playoff picture. Getting a win over a larger Division 4 team would hopefully insure that we get a couple home playoff games.
“Winning the conference outright is important to us,” he said. “This is a very tough league, and to go through the season without a loss in conference and be outright conference champs would mean a lot.”
The last time Whitehall won the conference was about 2000 or 1999.