GRAYLING — Montague has been here before. The Wildcats made it to the semifinals last year, only to see their hope of winning a state title ended with an overtime loss to Maple City Glen Lake.
They lost in the state championship game in 2018 and reached the regional final in 2017 before being eliminated.
But this is a first for Grayling (7-3), which plays the Wildcats in a Division 6 state semifinal matchup in Montague at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Like everyone else, the Wildcats were idle for eight weeks because of COVID -19 before finally resuming its season in the district finals, winning a Division 6 district title with a 36-7 victory over Muskegon Catholic Central back on Nov. 13.
But another spike in COVID-19 forced another pause in the season, postponing the Rams’ regional championship game with Montrose until last weekend.
The Wildcats, a perfect 10-0, have lit up the scoreboard in the playoffs, starting with a 75-0 thrashing of Hart, followed by a 50-7 pounding of Clare and the surprising 29-point whipping of Muskegon Catholic Central that was expected to be a close game that would come down to the final minute. Maybe the final play.
Last week was expected to be a tight game as well, but the Wildcats dominated on both offense and defense in overwhelming Montrose 41-16, scoring on six of their seven first-half possessions, to win their third consecutive regional title.
Grayling, which celebrated its first regional title for 24 hours then got back to work, knows it will have its hands full attempting to slow down the Wildcats’ powerful offense that seems unstoppable.
“They’re one of the best teams in the division each year,” Vikings’ coach Eric Tunney said. “They have a few All-State kids, their quarterback (Drew Collins) throws a nice ball and makes good decisions.
“Formationally, they are similar to us. They run a spread style offense. They execute very well and take care of the football.”
Collins really shined against Montrose, going 12-for-12 passing for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for another 25 yards and sprinted into the end zone once. Tugg Nichols hauled in two of Collin’s aerials for touchdowns, while Sam Smith was the recipient of another.
The Wildcats defense kept all-state quarterback Bobby Skinner under duress through the majority of the first half, with sophomore Izac Jarka capitalizing on the pressure with three interceptions.
Normally, the football season is over by now, with the state championships held the weekend after Thanksgiving. But COVID-19 has created a unique situation with all the pauses pushing things back.
“We’re going to have to take care of the football, first of all,” Tunney said. “We’ll keep an eye on the weather, but we better not let that have a negative impact on us.
“Maybe force them (the Wildcats) into some bad decisions. We need to be able to run the ball up front to be successful, which is what we’ve done all year.”
Leading the way, of course, has been junior running back David Millikin, who scored five touchdowns in the Vikings’ convincing 56-26 trouncing of Negaunee last Saturday which secured their first regional title in program history.
The Vikings will be challenged with the Wildcats giving them a little different look defensively with three down linemen, when traditionally the Vikings see four or five.
“It changes a little bit scheme-wise, blocking-wise,” Tunney added. “It’s not anything we haven’t seen, it’s just that we don’t see it as much. I know our kids will study film and we’ll try to come up with some tendencies and try to get first downs.
“We’re getting better with every practice, and every game. That’s great to see as a coach, especially from a 1-3 start. You watch that team play, versus now and I think you see a totally different product.”
Montague coach Pat Collins agreed, telling one interviewer that the Vikings are a team on the rise.
Tunney says it comes down to confidence.
“I think our kids are more confident,” he said. “Success helps with that. I like where our heads are at. Our kids have heart and they’re going to fight until the last whistle. We’ll see what happens on Saturday.
“Our kids were super excited Saturday and celebrated. But they’re not satisfied. They’ve done something they’ve never done before, but nobody has ever won a semifinal game either.”
That’s the Vikings’ next goal.