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‘Best feeling ever:’ Young QB the spark as Whitehall takes ‘Bell’ back from Montague

Vikings win rivalry game vs. Wildcats for first time in seven years, 34-14, and earn share of first league title since 1999.

WHITEHALL – Kyle Stratton had not yet been born the last time Whitehall’s football program captured a West Michigan Conference title in 1999. He was only 9 years old the last time the Vikings were able to ring “The Bell” in 2014 in their rivalry with neighboring Montague.

Friday night, Whitehall’s sophomore quarterback showed that he has come of age. In a team effort, Stratton sparked the Vikings with a game-high 131 rushing yards and three touchdowns en route to a 34-14 “Battle for the Bell” victory over the visiting Wildcats before an overflow crowd.

Whitehall’s win results in a three-way tie for the conference championship between the Division 4 fourth-ranked Vikings (7-1, 5-1), Division 6 fifth-ranked Montague (6-2, 5-1) and Division 5 10th-ranked Oakridge (7-1, 5-1), which defeated rival Ravenna in a thriller Friday night, 43-36.

“This is the greatest feeling ever, man. We’ve been waiting for this ever since we walked off Montague’s field last year. I wasn’t part of that team, but I was there and it sucks, man,” said Stratton, 16, who was referring to Montague’s 34-31 double-overtime win over Whitehall in 2020. He was the Vikings’ waterboy back in 2014.

“This is the best feeling ever. There’s no other way to explain it.”

Whitehall sophomore quarterback Kyle Startton is pictured during the 2021 season. (Zach Zweigle | CatchMark)

This is Stratton’s first season as a varsity player, but the 5-foot-8, 157-pounder has steadily improved as the Vikings’ starting signal-caller. Against Montague, he ran effectively behind an offensive line that took over the game as it wore on.

Stratton’s 20-yard run late in the first quarter gave Whitehall a 7-0 lead, his 5-yard run early in the third put the Vikings ahead 14-7, and another 5-yard run with 5:58 remaining gave his team a 27-14 lead and all but put it away.

In a balanced rushing attack, Stratton carried the ball 21 times, while Vikings senior Alec Pruett toted it 27 times for 116 yards – his eighth 100-yard effort in as many games. Pruett’s 7-yard TD run early in the fourth gave Whitehall the lead for good, 21-14.

Junior Nate Bolley capped the scoring on an 8-yard run with 1:44 left, beginning the victory celebration a little early for the Vikings.

“It really was a team effort. I mean, I think everybody had an opportunity to make a play, especially on defense, and then with the way our offensive line really was able to play at a high level tonight, I was very proud of those kids,” said Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon, whose squad took back the bell for the second time in his eight years at the helm.

“I mean, it’s the value of the weight room. We know that this game is not won or lost (on game day). It really has to do with the fact that wins are built rep after rep after rep in the weight room, and I felt like this group really earned those types of high-marquee wins this year based on what they did in the weight room. We knew that was the model of what Montague does and we respect that and honor that, so we knew it was going to be a dogfight.”

Photos by Kara Raeth, Scott DeCamp, Zach Zweigle and Billy Mann | CatchMark

The game was tied 7-7 at halftime and 14-apiece through three quarters, at which point Whitehall took over and put it away.

The Vikings finished with a 279-86 advantage in rushing yards. They also converted 8 of 17 third-down chances and all three of their fourth-down tries. The Wildcats were 2-of-11 on third down and 1-of-3 on fourth down.

Bolley and senior Braydn VanPatten each recorded a co-team-high 5 ½ tackles and one interception for Whitehall. Senior Max Brown also notched 5 ½ stops for the Vikings.

“I don’t know, but I feel like I just won the state championship, I won’t lie,” said Whitehall senior lineman Gabe Reavey, who is a leader up front for the Vikings and a former Montague student.

“We have bigger aspirations this year and we have bigger goals that we want to continue on with the season that we want to end up reaching, but this is one of those milestones where it’s like, ‘Senior year, it’s our last chance to do it,’ and the fact that we were able to do it and, honestly, in my opinion I feel like we did that in pretty dominating fashion. … I can’t put it into words.”

Montague senior QB Andrew Kooi finished 10-of-19 passing for 138 yards, including a 7-yard TD to senior Tugg Nichols that tied it at 14 late in the third, along with two picks.

Nichols and senior Dylan Everett both were hobbled in the game. In fact, Nichols was injured shortly after his TD reception. Everett rushed for 70 yards, including a 42-yard TD run to tie it at 7 with 4:09 left in the first half, on 18 attempts. Junior Chase Gowell made six receptions for 103 yards.

Senior Hayden McDonald led Montague with eight tackles, while sophomore Adam Baird Jr. registered 6 ½ stops. Everett and senior Colton Blankstrom notched 5 ½ tackles apiece.

“Down the stretch in that fourth quarter, they kind of out-physicaled us in spots. I mean, they were able to run the ball and their quarterback made a lot of plays tonight. We knew he was a good athlete going in and we’d have to stop him and there were just some breakdowns on defense where he kind of made us pay, especially on third and fourth downs – he made some big plays,” Montague coach Justin Dennett said after his first experience in “Battle for the Bell.”

The Wildcats have won or shared the league title four of the last five seasons.

“We got a share of the conference title. We were hoping to get it outright, but that was one of our goals to win conference and now make a playoff run here,” Dennett said.

The 115th meeting between the White Lake communities was a physical battle. Next week will be tough on Whitehall and Montague, too, as the teams hit the road for nonleague tests – Vikings at Reed City (7-1), Wildcats at Portland (6-2).

Time to essentially shift to playoff mode for both squads. But, of course, the Vikings were trying to savor the moment Friday night after the game as they celebrated with each other and other peers, clanged the bell and took photos of it.

“Just to bring (the bell) back, we’re hoping to do it for years to come,” said Stratton, whose team has won six straight games since a 32-19 conference-opening loss to Oakridge, whose lone league defeat came against Montague, 33-7.

“This is the best feeling ever. I’m so happy – I love celebrating with the team.”

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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