By Tom Kendra

SPRING LAKE – No team in the Muskegon area, and maybe the entire state, is better at finding ways to win close games than Montague.

The Wildcats’ attitude has allowed them to pull out many thrilling wins over conference rivals Whitehall and Oakridge over the years. They did it again on Thursday night against Spring Lake, a team which they have only played one other time, in 1998.

LSJ photo/Kelly Gates

Montague pulled out a 20-17 win in the opener for both teams.

Host Spring Lake appeared to have the game won, leading by three points with less than 4 minutes remaining and with the ball in Montague territory.

But Paul Olson came up with a game-changing interception with 3:35 remaining. On the next play, he hauled in a 68-yard pass from Chase Gowell to make it all the way to the 2-yard line.

Two plays later, junior halfback Adam Baird snuck in for what became the game-winning touchdown with 2:07 left in front of a packed house at Grabinski Field.

Spring Lake did not go down without a fight.

The Lakers used a big kickoff return from sophomore Gabe Trask to start their final drive at the Montague 49-yard line.

Behind the power inside running of senior fullback Alex Lee and nifty keeper runs by sophomore quarterback Reid Grimmer, the Lakers drove well inside the field goal range of senior Carter Ball, who had booted a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter.

But on the next keeper run, Grimmer took a big hit and was injured, losing his helmet in the process.

Then junior Kyle Wright came in and calmly fired a strike to senior Derrick Paggeot for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. But the score was erased by an illegal motion penalty.

LSJ Photo/Kelly Gates

After the 5-yard penalty, Wright was sacked on third down by blitzing Montague linebacker Michael Moore for a 7-yard loss, which turned what would have been a 37-yard field goal attempt two plays earlier into a 49-yard attempt with 19 seconds remaining.

Ball booted a high, dead-straight kick which came up just short, bouncing into the padding at the base of the goalpost.

From 37 yards, the kick would have easily been good, forcing overtime. From 49 yards, it proved to be heartbreak for the Lakers, who were trying to win the opening game for new coach Cody Mallory, who coached the past 7 years at Cadillac.

It was a much more satisfying opener for Montague than a year ago, when it started with a 38-0 loss to Edwardsburg. This year, also against a larger Division 4 opponent, the Wildcats used big plays to prevail.

Despite being outgained 183 yards to 76 in total offense in the first half, Montague held a 14-10 halftime lead.

Owen Peterson scored the first touchdown on an 88-yard kickoff return in the second quarter, giving Montague a 7-3 lead.

After Spring Lake answered with a 2-yard touchdown run by Grimmer, Baird scampered 42 yards off a dump pass from Gowell to give his team the halftime lead.

Spring Lake scored the only points of the third quarter on a 70-yard burst up the middle by Lee, a battering-ram fullback and middle linebacker for the Lakers.

It looked like that score might be all the hosts needed, until Montague pulled out the come-from-behind win in the game’s final 4 minutes.

Montague (1-0) stays on the road next Thursday against Ravenna before opening conference play in the new West Michigan Conference Lakes Division at home on Sept. 9 against Orchard View.

Spring Lake (0-1) visits Zeeland East next Thursday and opens OK Blue conference play on Sept. 9 at home against Grand Rapids West Catholic.