Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
LANSING – The last three years have been a whirlwind for the seniors on Montague’s football team. The Wildcats went from a heartbreaking state semifinal loss in 2019 to a thrilling 12-0 run to the state championship in 2020.
Ironically, in the second quarter of Saturday’s Division 6 regional final at Lansing Catholic, the Wildcats were hit by sideways sleet and a turnover-aided 24-point flurry by the Cougars that turned the game in the host team’s favor.
Top-ranked Lansing Catholic defeated Montague, 31-13, to end a memorable run by the Wildcats and their seniors.
Montague finishes the season with an 8-4 record, along with a share of the West Michigan Conference title and a fifth-straight district championship. In the last three seasons combined, the Wildcats are 30-7.
Lansing Catholic (11-1) advances to the state semifinals. The Cougars will face Standish-Stering (10-2), a 34-7 regional winner over Calumet, next weekend. Lansing Catholic is seeking its second state title in three years, having captured the Division 5 crown in 2019.
“As a senior, knowing that was my last game, I mean, as a metaphor it’s like getting hit by a train, really,” said Montague senior Tugg Nichols, who crouched to the field and was overcome with emotion after his final game in a Wildcats uniform. “The emotion just takes you over because it’s your last game you’ll ever play. Fell short.”
Montague was opportunistic in the opening quarter. After senior linebacker Colton Blankstrom’s interception and nice return snuffed out a promising Lansing Catholic drive and flipped field position, senior Andrew Kooi connected with Nichols on a deep pass to the 3. Senior Dylan Everett scored on a 3-yard run and Kooi hit the PAT to give the Wildcats a short-lived 7-0 lead.
Lansing Catholic tied it at 7 in the first minute and a half of the second quarter on a 25-yard pass from Joey Baker to the versatile Alex Watters. Moments later, just before the sleet blew through, fumbles on consecutive Montague possessions at the Wildcats’ 33- and 28-yard lines, respectively, tipped the momentum in the Cougars’ favor.
Lansing Catholic capitalized on both of Montague’s turnovers in the pivotal quarter with a 3-yard TD pass to Watters and 1-yard scoring toss to Dylan Farrar. Jonah Richards added a 32-yard field goal on the final play of the half as the Cougars built a 24-7 lead.
“Yeah, (the fumbles) kill us. An offense as talented as they are, it’s tough to stop them when you give them a short field like that. And, really, that second quarter kind of got us,” Montague coach Justin Dennett said after he wrapped up his first season as a head coach.
“Other than that, we played pretty well with a couple of turnovers (forced). Giving a talented offense like that a short field, it’s tough to keep ’em out.”
The weather cleared in the second half. Watters scored on a 1-yard run just past the midway point of the second quarter.
Montague pulled to within 31-13 on a 22-yard TD pass from Kooi to junior Izac Jarka with 5:58 remaining, but the Wildcats could not get any closer.
“You know what, when you go against a team you’ve never played before, you watch a lot of film, but you never really know how good they are or how good we are and all that,” said Lansing Catholic first-year coach Jim Baker, who is the father of the Cougars’ QB.
“I think we got a little momentum going. They’re a really good football team, but I think our guys played really focused and they started playing more physical than we have in the past few weeks, so I was really excited to see that. When the snow came down, I think kids got excited.”
Lansing Catholic outgained Montague in total offense, 300-166. Baker was 17-of-36 passing for 213 yards. Watters caught four passes for 66 yards and ran 10 times for 43 yards. Mason Knippen registered a game-high 11 tackles for the Cougars.
Kooi finished 5-of-19 for 62 yards with one pick for Montague. Everett ran 25 times for 99 yards. Blankstrom led the Wildcats defensively with nine tackles, while Jarka made eight stops and Nichols six with an interception.
“It was an unbelievable year, just a great group of seniors. They’ve accomplished so much in their four years. Just really proud of those guys,” Dennett said. “The leadership that they’ve shown all year and their work ethic and, really, just kind of taking me in as a new coach and being really coachable and respectful, I’m just really proud of the senior group for sure.
“You know, we wish we could have got it done tonight, but they had a great career.”
Montague’s season two years ago ended in a heartbreaking 31-30 overtime loss to Maple City Glen Lake in the semifinals. That defeat stuck with the Wildcats’ returnees and fueled a perfect run last season, when they navigated the stops and re-starts amid the COVID-19 pandemic and captured the program’s third state title.
According to all-state senior lineman Hayden McDonald, Montague had some doubters this season but the Wildcats were determined to prove them wrong.
“This year, people were doubting us,” McDonald said. “They thought we weren’t going to be anything because we lost so many seniors, so many great players, but we came out, we had a great season, we got a district championship, share of the conference. We did a great job and I think we proved ’em wrong.”
With eye black smeared across his cheeks and dejection still reflected in his eyes, Nichols reflected on an unforgettable run with the Wildcats that he wishes could have gone on two more weeks.
The dream was to get back to Ford Field and defend the state title. Nichols expressed pride in what he and his teammates have achieved the past couple seasons during their storybook run, but he would have preferred to write a different ending.
“I mean, I’m always proud. We praise Montague all the time,” Nichols said. “I’m Montague through and through, but it just sucks knowing that we had such a great campaign going over the last couple of years and we just fell short to adding onto it.”
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