MONTAGUE — It's hard to bounce back from a mentally draining defeat, but Montague showed resilience Tuesday and rallied in a huge way to win a share of the West Michigan Conference Lakes title.
After a tough 4-3 defeat in game one of a doubleheader, the Wildcats exploded for an 11-run third inning and defeated Oakridge by mercy rule, 12-1, in the nightcap to secure a piece of the WMC Lakes. It marked the third straight conference championship for Montague (18-12, 9-3 WMC Lakes). Oakridge earned the other half of the conference title with its win in game one.
"We were struggling that first game getting the bats moving, and we needed something like that to break out of our funk," Montague coach Jeff Moss said of the outburst. "Everybody was kind of down. They weren't up in the dugout. Just to get that inning...that just puts a team away. That just shuts them right down and there. We've still got to play four more innings or whatever it was, but you can take the wind out of the sails pretty quickly, putting 11 runs on somebody in an inning."
All 11 runs in the frame came with one out. After a sacrifice bunt, the next 13 Montague batters reached base, including 10 base hits. Kade Johnson sparked the rally with a two-run triple that he lashed to the opposite field. Kellan Francis, Izac Jarka, Ryver Jarka, Chase Gowell and Nick Moss came up with RBI hits afterward - Gowell's was a triple - and Johnson then bookended the explosion with a run-scoring single.
The reeling Eagles got only two runners on base in their final three trips to the plate, none getting past first. Owen Petersen pitched a strong game, allowing three hits and striking out four to get the win.
The Montague coaches challenged the team to bounce back during the break between games, and as the starting pitcher for game two, Petersen took that message to heart.
"Just to keep the other team on their toes and never let them know the next pitch that's coming," Petersen said, outlining his strategy to start the game. "Come in with the most confidence I possibly can to just be dominant up there and throw for outs.
"My guys behind me (made plays). I don't think I throw a lot of pitches to strike kids out. I might have a strikeout here and there, but I really put a lot of faith in my fielders behind me and I know they get the job done."
Moss said the Wildcat hitters were able to adjust their approach in the second game. He told the team between games that nothing was going to change in Oakridge's pitching approach in game two, and it was up to them to adjust. The results spoke for themselves.
"That's where we should have been in game one," Moss said. "We just came in here flat for game one and weren't ready. That's on me...We're still proud of the way we came out in game two and did it, because a lot of teams lose that first game and (fold), but we responded.
"It means a lot to these guys. These are my guys. I mean, I've had (all these seniors) since (they were) 11 years old. We went to the state finals in Little League."
Oakridge took the early lead in the second on three singles, its only hits of the game. The specter of doubt might have crept in after a heartbreaking game-one loss that saw Montague miss out on converting a few key scoring chances.
In that first game, Montague got the bases loaded with one out in the fourth inning and couldn't cash in the chance. The 'Cats didn't get on the board until the fifth, when a dropped fly ball in center field with two out sent Gowell to the plate for a run to make it 3-1, Oakridge.
After the Eagles answered that run with one of their own, Montague threatened again in the sixth when the first three batters reached, including a RBI single by Ryver Jarka. A run-scoring groundout got the deficit to one, but Montague couldn't manufacture another scoring chance.
With the WMC Lakes race now over, the Wildcats will turn their attention to a competitive district that includes a first-round matchup against Ravenna and a potential showdown with North Muskegon or Kent City in the finals. Montague and the Norsemen have engaged in some classic battles over the past couple of years.
Count Petersen, for one, as in favor of another one. He said he's never pitched against North Muskegon.
"I'd really enjoy throwing against them in a district game," Petersen said. "That would be a tough matchup. We've got a lot of buddies on that team who I've also played baseball with in the past. We know they're a good squad. I think we could pull it out."