MONTAGUE — There have been many great Whitehall/Montague battles in recent years, but possibly none were better than Friday night's.
The teams traded haymakers all night long, but for the sixth straight year, Montague got in the final blow, scoring a 34-31 win in double overtime to retain the Bell and secure at least a share of the West Michigan Conference title. (Montague can win it outright next week at home against North Muskegon.)
"They have a great group of coaches and kids and they fought hard, and our kids just kept battling too," Montague coach Pat Collins said. "I'm so proud of our group for just standing strong. No matter what (obstacles) they had to face, they responded. I'm proud of my guys for doing that."
There were too many huge moments to recount that went into the final outcome, but the one that brought the coach to a point where he was "getting choked up" was seeing kicker Andrew Kooi knock through a 26-yard field goal as regulation expired to force overtime, then deliver a 23-yarder to win the game in double overtime. Kooi missed a PAT in overtime of last season's semifinal loss to Glen Lake, and the kicks Friday were sweet redemption.
"He puts a tremendous amount of time in," Collins said of Kooi. "I'm so proud of that kid."
Kooi said he entered the big-time kicks with confidence forged over a spring and summer kicking PATs and field goals to keep sharp.
"There was a point where I hadn't missed a PAT in four or five months," Kooi said. "I'm just building confidence over and over again. To come out in a game, every kick is automatic. I wasn't really nervous. I just felt like I had to make this kick to win for my boys, my seniors."
Kooi had a chance to win the game because the Vikings' possession in double overtime went poorly. They ended up going backwards eight yards, and Taden Brandel's 35-yard field goal attempt was short and to the left.
The game likely wouldn't have come down to Kooi's foot, though, if not for repeated clutch plays by the Vikings, who converted a slew of huge third and fourth downs, the last of which was the biggest. Nate Bolley took a jet sweep handoff from Andrew Durbin and powered through tackles into the end zone with 1:20 to go for the go-ahead touchdown.
Whitehall had earned the chance to go ahead by stripping Drew Collins of the football after its previous drive had ended with a fourth-down sack of Durbin by Trey Mikkelsen.
Bolley had a spectacular game, rushing for 116 yards and three touchdowns. Most notably, in the second quarter, Bolley saw something in the Wildcat defense while taking a punt snap at his own 23, bulled through a couple of tackles, and sprinted 77 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at seven.
"That was Nate basically seeing something and taking it, and we got real lucky there," Sigmon said, noting that the fake punt was not a coach's call. "He's going to be something (special). I mean, he already is, but he had a special game."
After Bolley's go-ahead scoring run, it was down to Drew Collins, who's led so many clutch Montague drives in his career, to do it again.
"He just brought the group in and had a few words with those guys and just said, this is why we put the work in, for moments like this," coach Collins said of his son. "He said a few more things, and we took the field, and our whole offense put a great drive together."
Aided by a late-hit penalty against Whitehall on the drive, Collins maneuvered the Wildcats into position for that first Kooi field goal. He carried the ball on Montague's final couple of plays of regulation. As a matter of fact, no one else on the Wildcats' team, other than the snapper, touched the ball the rest of the game, as Collins ran for a 10-yard touchdown in the first overtime (the Vikings would answer with another score by Bolley) and carried three straight times in the second before Kooi's winning kick (for which Collins held).
Collins totaled 110 rushing yards and three touchdowns to go with a 10-of-12 passing effort for 78 yards.
"I just have to accept it," Drew Collins said of being the man who's counted on to carry the ball. "It's just the role of a senior. They want me to fall forward in those overtime moments. I can't get pushed back. I have to get one to two yards."
Both teams attacked the middle of the opponent's defensive line, and remarkably, both had success doing so despite the sterling performances of each team's defenses through four weeks. The teams ran on 90 plays combined, each averaging a little more than four yards per carry, and passed on only 27.
"Their guys wore us down a little bit," coach Collins said. "Our guys are pretty big, a couple of them, and they were wearing out. They played both ways all the time. They never come off the field, hardly ever."
Viking quarterback Andrew Durbin was 8-of-15 for 104 yards and a touchdown, an 18-yard toss to Brodie Fogus that saw the latter make a remarkable effort to reel in a jump ball and corral it while it was rolling around on his chest. Nick Blanchard led the defense with 7.5 tackles. For Montague, Izac Jarka, Sam Smith and Colton Blankstrom each had six tackles, and Jarka had an interception.
Bigger games are, hopefully, ahead for both teams in what could be long postseason runs. But for one night, the area soaked in what was one of the rivalry's greatest entries.
"It was a once in a lifetime experience," Kooi said. "I'm going to be old and thinking about this game and thinking about my brothers. This is such a memorable moment in my life."