Two years ago, Montague made the trip to Ford Field for the state finals with sophomore quarterback Drew Collins at the helm. At the time, Collins was making just his 12th career start after taking over the starting job for week three that season.
After an outstanding performance all season, Collins was stifled by the Lumen Christi defense most of the game before salvaging his day with a pair of late touchdown passes in a 42-28 Montague defeat.
Now, Collins is leading another Wildcat team to the finals, this time against Clinton — emphasis on 'leading'. The Division 5-6 state player of the year thinks he's improved a lot more in that department since that 2018 title game than in anything related to the playing of his position.
"I think I've just grown as a leader," Drew Collins said. "I've really looked at the part of the game that's more on the leadership side, more than just being a better quarterback. That comes with time and hard work, but just understanding how to get guys to listen to you, that's where I've gotten a lot better, especially vocally."
Collins, who is committed to play at Division II Michigan Tech next fall, received another tribute to his off-field success this week when he was named one of the 32 Class B finalists for the MHSAA Scholar-Athlete award. (Classmate and three-sport star Ally Hall was also named a finalist.)
Collins' leadership will be perhaps even more important in this particular title game because of COVID-19 limitations from the state department of health and human services (MDHHS). The Wildcats only received 125 tickets for sale to the game, so the crowd will not be much of a factor, and that's far from the only way that the trip to Detroit is far different than usual.
In some ways, the differences are somewhat trivial; coach Pat Collins said the Wildcats won't be able to catch any of Mona Shores' Division 2 finals game that immediately precedes Montague's, as they did two years ago. Of course, in many other ways, including the repeated rapid tests for COVID-19 (an MDHHS pilot program that allowed this game to be played at all), as well as all the accompanying safety precautions that need to be observed, the differences are stark.
Still, the coach knows his son, and the rest of the team, will be prepared regardless of the circumstances.
"Some of those things are disappointing, but we're just thankful to play," coach Collins said. "The guys have perspective. It's no complaints. It fits these guys, because they're not into the extra hype. They just want to play football with each other and win a state championship. This will give them an opportunity to focus on what they want to do."
Drew agreed that the atmosphere within the team this week, and throughout the season, has been with a single-minded focus on the task at hand. The Wildcats made trips to Grand Rapids this week to practice at the Michigan Sports Academies Fieldhouse in preparation for the artificial turf surface at Ford Field.
"It's businesslike," Drew said. "We're just trying to get better every single day. That's been our motto all year. The only thing we can do is get better each week. If you're the best team you can be at the end of the season, that's all you can ask for."
There's always a self-imposed pressure to score whenever Collins and the offense has the ball, but facing Clinton's ground-heavy, ball-control offense, which will aim to limit the Wildcats' possessions, adds some urgency to the Montague play calls.
"We have to earn some possessions by playing great defense, and our offense has to take advantage of those," coach Collins said. "Field goals, touchdowns, you don't know how many of those you're going to get. The goal is to score right away and get up. The way (Clinton) runs their offense, they're the team that would want to be up, because it's not necessarily a comeback offense."
The senior quarterback embraces that pressure. Montague has been able to put up points in a variety of ways this year, relying on an air attack in the regional finals against Montrose and leaning on the ground game in wins over Oakridge and rival Whitehall. No matter what he's asked to do, Collins knows his offense is up to it. It helps that he's joined by a powerful front line, speedy running back Dylan Everett, and big-play receivers like Tugg Nichols and Sam Smith.
Collins also plays safety on defense, and knows how important that side of the ball will be too.
"We've been running tempo all year, this year and last year," Drew said. "We're in pretty good shape right now, despite the break over Christmas. We'll be ready to go for that. I think (playing well) defensively will be just as important, making sure we force three-and-outs. We have to make sure we play good on defense to set up the offense."