Photos by Scott DeCamp and Zach Zweigle | CatchMark
WHITEHALL – Tugg Nichols knows a thing or two about “The Battle for the Bell.”
Tonight will mark the third “Bell” game for Montague’s senior receiver/defensive back, whose squad visits neighboring rival Whitehall with a share of the West Michigan Conference title on the line.
“Intense,” “emotional” and “amazing” are words Nichols used to describe the game. This one, which kicks off at 7 p.m., pits top-five-ranked teams as Whitehall is No. 4 in Division 4 and Montague is No. 5 in Division 6.
“They’re all special, just because you’re fighting for ‘The Bell.’ You know, you could be the team that wins it, the team that loses it – you don’t ever want to be the team that loses it,” said Nichols, whose program has kept the bell six straight years.
“But this one being the last one, it’s kind of sad, you know. Being able to play in three of them is a blessing, but I wish I could just keep playing for ‘The Bell.’”
Montague (6-1 overall, 5-0 WMC) has already clinched a piece of the league title, but as Nichols puts it, the Wildcats have no intention of sharing it. They want it outright.
Whitehall (6-1, 4-1) can earn a share with a victory tonight. Oakridge (6-1, 4-1) also is in contention for a conference-title share – the Eagles need to beat rival Ravenna and hope for a Vikings victory.
Montague has won or shared the West Michigan Conference championship four of the last five years. Whitehall is seeking its first league title since 1999.
This is the 115th all-time meeting between the football teams from the White Lake communities. Last year’s game, a 34-31 double-overtime win for Montague, was an instant classic and still serves as a source of motivation for Whitehall.
“After last year and everything, this is a game where our kids, they’re focused. They want to play this game,” Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon said. “I think after they got off the field last year, they wanted to play it right then and there. That’s something to where they want this opportunity – they want to be able to play at a high level and this game is important to them.”
While tonight marks the first “Bell” game for Montague coach Justin Dennett, it’s the eighth for Sigmon.
The Vikings have been very close to seizing the bell in recent seasons, falling 46-44 to the Wildcats in 2017 and 29-28 in 2015.
Montague leads the all-time series with Whitehall, 64-48-2.
With all the hype surrounding the game, players and coaches know how important it is to focus on the task at hand and not get swept away in the emotion and atmosphere.
“You don’t want to get too distracted getting hyped up because then you jump out of your fundamentals and you don’t play your game,” Whitehall junior receiver/defensive back Nate Bolley said. “I feel like, we need to settle down a bit about the hype and just play the game and just get our keys going and all of that.
“For me, I know it’s one of the hardest things because I love the hype around the team and how it goes. But, yeah, it’s definitely the hardest thing.”
In terms of notable common opponents, Montague defeated Oakridge in Week 4 (33-7) and Ravenna in Week 5 (14-7), while Whitehall lost to Oakridge in Week 2 (32-19) and beat Ravenna in Week 3 (42-0).
When Montague defeated Oakridge, the Wildcats outplayed the Eagles. However, Oakridge was coming off what amounted to a bye week and Eagles coach Cary Harger thought it may have impacted his team in some ways.
Will that be a factor tonight for Montague, which is effectively coming off a bye week of its own?
“We thought about that as coaches: Is it going to help or hurt us having a week off?” Dennett said. “I think with this being a rivalry game and having so much on the line that our guys are going to come ready to play. I’m not concerned about the week off last week. I think we’ll show up ready to play Friday.”
After a week’s worth of hype and maybe some playful trash talk, it’s time to play the game.
Last year’s matchup was played in front of a smaller crowd than usual because of attendance restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. A standing-room-only crowd is expected tonight.
“I mean, the pressure is intense obviously because we don’t want to be the team that loses (the bell),” he said. “If we win, this will be our seventh year in a row that we have kept ‘The Bell’ and that’s the goal. “It’s going to be a good game and everybody’s going to be there and it’s going to be awesome.”
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