LANSING — Despite the exact start they wanted, the Montague Wildcats couldn’t keep their state title defense going last Saturday afternoon, falling to powerhouse Lansing Catholic in the regional finals 31-13.

The ‘Cats couldn’t have asked for much more early on against the 2019 Division 5 state champs and 2020 semifinalists. Colton Blankstrom intercepted Cougars’ quarterback Joey Baker on their second possession, only Baker’s third pick of the year, returning it into Lansing Catholic territory.

A few plays later, Andrew Kooi completed a clutch third-down pass to Tugg Nichols, setting up Dylan Everett for a three-yard touchdown burst that put Montague ahead 7-0. Everything was going according to plan.

The Cougars upended that plan from there, scoring on the next possession on their way to 31 straight points. They were fueled by two Montague fumbles in just four offensive plays, both setting up Cougar touchdowns.

“It kills us,” Montague coach Justin Dennett said. “An offense as talented as they are, it’s tough to stop them when you give them a short field like that. Really, that second quarter kind of got us. Other than that we played pretty well. A couple of turnovers and giving an offense like that a short field, it’s tough to overcome.”

Senior receiver Alex Watters was the spark for the Cougar offense. Although he touched the ball only 14 times on offense, it seemed like more as he turned those touches into 110 total yards and three touchdowns. On top of that, his big punt return late in the second quarter set up the Cougars for a field goal as the clock expired for halftime, making it 24-7 in the home team’s favor.

Watters repeatedly showed off the skills and elusiveness that made him the leading receiver in the state last year and in the top five this season. On a 25-yard touchdown pass, which came on a third-and-11, he made three Wildcats miss on his way to the end zone.

“We knew all about him,” Dennett said. “He’s the leading receiver in the state for a reason, I guess. We felt like we were in good position a lot, but just couldn’t make a play. He’s a really good athlete, a talented kid, and he was tough to bring down.”

The Cougars kept coming in the third quarter, converting a fourth down on their way to the end zone — Watters scored again on a one-yard run — and going up 31-7. Montague (8-4) made a last-gasp effort in the fourth quarter, scoring on a 22-yard pass from Kooi to Izac Jarka, but the two-point conversion missed, and the Wildcats couldn’t score again.

The loss ended the careers of a great crop of Wildcat seniors, including all-state lineman Hayden McDonald and two-way stars Nichols and Everett. Everett ran for 97 yards and a touchdown, accounting for over half of Montague’s 162 offensive yards. As you’d expect, the emotions hit each senior hard after the final whistle.

“As a senior, knowing that was my last game, as a metaphor, it’s like being hit by a train, I guess, really,” Nichols said. “The emotion just takes over, because it’s your last game you’ll ever play and you fell short.”

Still, the ‘Cats seniors could take pride in a title defense that went far better than some expected after the loss of many star seniors and coaches from the 2020 state champs.

“This year, people were doubting us,” McDonald said. “They thought we weren’t going to be anything because we lost so many seniors and so many great players, but we came out and had a great season. We got a district championship and a share of the conference. We did a great job. I think we proved them wrong.”

Dennett, the most public-facing of the new faces in Montague this year, concurred with his star lineman.

“It was an unbelievable year,” Dennett said. “We just had a great group of seniors. They’ve accomplished so much in their four years. I’m really proud of those guys and the leadership they’ve shown all year and their work ethic. Really just kind of taking me in as a new coach, and being very coachable and respectful. I’m just really proud of this senior group for sure.”

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