'Battle for the Bell' Rings for 110th Tilt

October 5, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

The Whitehall vs. Montague football game actually begins on Thursday night far away from any football field, with a huge crowd from each town, bands, cheerleaders, players, coaches and school officials.

For the coin toss.

In a scene reminiscent of a Revolutionary War battle, the aforementioned delegations marched toward each other on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 22, and met – Whitehall in red and Montague in blue – on the bridge over the White River, which separates the two northern Muskegon County towns.

No shots were fired or punches thrown, but simply a coin was tossed high in the air by veteran MHSAA official Chuck Hulce (who, by the way, coached Montague from 1969 to 1977 and then Whitehall from 1979 to 1981) and the 110th edition of the “The Battle for the Bell” was underway.

“This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life – playing Whitehall, the cross-town rival where I know everyone, my senior year,” said Montague senior wide receiver Josh Weesies. “It’s huge for me. We’ve been grinding all summer just thinking about this game.”

Montague, with a population of 2,361 and covering 3.27 square miles, boasts the World’s Largest Working Weathervane and 1961 Miss America Nancy Fleming – and boasted a 59-48-2 edge in the all-time series over Whitehall heading into this year’s game.

Whitehall, with a population of 2,706 and covering 3.79 square miles, counters with the historic Howmet Playhouse and 11-year Major League Baseball player and Gold Glove winner Nate McLouth, who quarterbacked the Vikings to back-to-back wins in the series in 1998 and 1999.

The game has always been about bragging rights, but this year’s clash was much more. For the first time since 1985, both teams came into the game undefeated and both were state-ranked.  Whitehall was 4-0 and ranked eighth in the Associated Press Division 4 poll, while Montague was also 4-0 and ranked sixth in Division 5.

The pre-game festivities on Sept. 22 were all about White Lake area unity as the two communities came together for a “Pink Out” event to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital and the fight against cancer – and  the marching bands even performed together on the field before the game.

Then it was time to take sides.

“This rivalry is very special for me,” said Whitehall senior quarterback Casey Huizenga. “I know all the Montague kids. We’re friends, but during this game we’re going all out.”

Huizenga and Whitehall actually struck first in the game, which was played on a perfect early fall night in front of 5,000 fans at Montague.

Whitehall junior Tylor Russell returned the opening kickoff deep into Montague territory, setting up a 1-yard plunge by Huizenga for a quick 6-0 Vikings’ lead.

But it didn’t take long for Montague’s myriad offensive weapons to come out. On the ensuing possession, Montague senior quarterback Dylan Stever (good friends with Huizenga, incidentally) connected with junior Jake Jancek on a 16-yard touchdown pass to tie the score.

Jancek was the first of six Wildcats to score touchdowns in the game, which featured 40 points in the first quarter alone, with Montague holding a 27-13 edge. Also scoring for the Wildcats were junior Eddie Caviedes, sophomore Bryce Stark, Weesies, sophomore Kenyon Johnston and Stever.

The difference in the game was Montague’s defense completely shutting down the Whitehall offense after the first quarter.

Whitehall’s only score after the first 12 minutes was a 90-yard interception return by junior Justin Brown in the fourth quarter, which completed the scoring in a decisive 41-20 Montague victory. The night ended with fans heading for their cars and the Wildcats ringing the red, white and blue victory bell for the ninth time in the last 11 years.

“It’s fun to be here with the whole community at one game,” said 13th-year Montague coach Pat Collins, who played quarterback and led the Wildcats to the 1992 Class CC championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, where they lost to Detroit dePorres, 12-7. “It’s a real special moment every year up here.”

Collins has turned Montague into a state football powerhouse, as it’s made the MHSAA Playoffs in 11 of his first 12 seasons as head coach. What is more impressive is what his teams have done once they get there. Montague made it at least to the third round of the playoffs eight straight years from 2004 to 2011, at least to the Semifinals five straight years from 2005 to 2009 and won back-to-back Division 6 championships in 2008 and 2009.

Montague (5-1), which was upset by North Muskegon in the rain on Sept. 30, is heavily favored at Hart this week, which would set up a showdown at Muskegon Oakridge (5-1) on Oct. 14 for the West Michigan Conference title. For the playoffs, Montague’s enrollment has increased to 414 and the Wildcats are now considered a “bubble team” which could end up in either Division 5 or Division 6.

Whitehall (4-2), a larger school with 654 students, could clinch its third-straight Division 4 playoff berth with two wins over its final three games, starting with this week’s showdown at Ravenna (4-2).

While Montague has been a model of stability with just two head football coaches during the past 31 years (Ken Diamond from 1986 to 2003 and Collins from 2004 to present), Whitehall has been just the opposite.

The Vikings have had five different head coaches since 2002, but it appears they have found their man in Dewitt native Tony Sigmon, who has a 19-9 record over the past three seasons after a 1-8 start in his first season in 2013.

For Sigmon, the first step to competing for West Michigan Conference titles and MHSAA playoff victories is being able to consistently go toe-to-toe with rival Montague.

“This game, this rivalry is what high school football is all about,” Sigmon said. “It’s a game that has become a huge community event, and it drives both teams to keep getting better.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Montague players gather to ring the trophy bell after Montague defeated Whitehall, 41-20, in the "The Battle for the Bell." (Middle) Montague junior Jake Jancek elevates to grab this 16-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Stever in the first quarter, while Whitehall's JoJo Dowdell defends. (Below) The Whitehall and Montague bands performed together before the big game between the two northern Muskegon County schools. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)