MONTAGUE – Grayling’s football team had grown used to being the underdog. No one dreamed the Vikings would even win a playoff game after starting out 1-3, which included three straight losses.
Yet here they were, looking for their eighth straight win after capturing their first ever regional title the week before, facing an undefeated Montague team eager to make amends for last year’s loss to Glen Lake.
The fans who made the three-hour drive to Montague for the school’s first appearance in the Division 6 state semifinals, one win away from the final, grew even more excited when the Vikings capitalized on an early turnover to take a 7-0 lead.
But the Vikes (7-4) wouldn’t get into the end zone again until the fourth quarter, by which time the Wildcats (11-0) had established control and steamrolled to a onesided 49-14 victory, punching their ticket to the state championship game.
Although it wasn’t the result Grayling wanted, it can’t detract from the remarkable, and historic run the Vikings made despite all they had to overcome — including a couple of pauses because of COVID-19.
“We hoped, obviously, to do a little better, but Montague is a good team and they have a lot of good players,” Grayling head coach Eric Tunney said. “We made some mistakes, and you just can’t do that against a good team like that.
“Overall, I’m very happy with the kids and the season, how they just kept fighting and overcame so much. We got some hardware in the trophy case, and I know our program is a lot better off now because of the hard work they put in,”
The Vikings got off to a promising start.
Grayling’s defense staggered the Wildcats, who came into the game as the prohibitive favorite, when a hard hit on a Montague ball carrier jarred the ball loose from his grasp and a Viking fell on it.
Blessed with excellent field position on the turnover, the Vikings punched the ball in from short range when junior running back David Millikin scooted three yards to the end zone.
The score naturally created a wild scene on the Grayling sideline, with players giving each other chest bumps with grins from ear to ear, expecting more of the same.
“We started out the way we wanted,” Tunney said. “We chewed up a lot of clock, got a fumble right away, scored first. They had one real drive in the first quarter.
“That was part of our plan, to control the time of possession, and not get into a shootout with them. Our kids fought hard, they played hard and I’m proud of their efforts.”
Montague, however, didn’t blink. Spurred on by a limited, but loud home crowd the Wildcats struck for the tying touchdown on their next offensive possession.
Dylan Everett silenced the Grayling crowd when he broke off a 27-yard scoring run that knotted the score at 7-7.
A 58-yard pass from quarterback Drew Collins to Tug Nichols set the Wildcats up deep in Grayling territory midway through the second quarter, but the Vikings appeared to dodge the bullet when they poked the ball out of Collins grip two plays later and recovered at their own 3-yard line.
Grayling’s offense couldn’t gain a first down, and the Wildcats (11-0) were knocking on the door again after the ensuing punt. Everett scored for the Wildcats three plays later to give the Wildcats a 14-7 lead.
The Wildcats would never trail again.
“When you’re backed up like that, obviously the goal is to get it out of there, get two first downs,” said Tunney. “But, we weren’t able to do that. One little block, one little cut here and things might be a little different.
“They’re a good team, and they capitalize on any little mistake. It’s why they are now 11-0 and are probably going to win a state championship.”
Montague scored again when Collins hit Owen Peterson on a 13-yard strike that sent the Wildcats into the halftime break with a 21-7 bulge.
A couple of pass interceptions led directly to a pair of Montague scores, including a pick six, The Vikings also fumbled a kickoff after the Wildcats had extended their lead to 42-7, giving them the ball at the Vikings’ 42, and that led to the final Montague TD.
Millikin scored his second touchdown of the game just before time expired. He finished the day with 115 yards rushing on 22 carries. He ended the season with a school record 1,640 yards. It broke a record set by Joey Bancroft that had stood for 15 years.
He also had 35 yards receiving to lead the team, and was the leading tackler with eight stops. Anthony Fisher and Drew Kanary each contributed six tackles. Reid Cvitkovich had four tackles and Trevor Kline-Johnson three.
The Vikings brought a sense of class and respect to the field, as noted in a conversation with one of the Montague sideline crew with CrawfordVoice.com editor Mark Constance.
“This is the most disciplined and respectful team we’ve seen all year,” he said of Grayling. “Even last week at the regionals, it was awful with players and young coaches yelling at the officials. Your guys aren’t like that. They are focused. And it all starts at the top with quality coaches.”
Tunney said the bar has been raised for the program.
“I told the seniors ‘Thank you, because now this is the expectation … a district championship, and a deep run in the playoffs,” Tunney said.
“Multiple kids have asked when ‘When can we start lifting and working out?’ Obviously COVID throws a wrench into those things as well. We’ll make a plan.
“But, I’m just super excited. The whole town was behind us every step of the way, and they still are. I think it brought a level of excitement to Grayling, and especially our football program.
“Any time you make a playoff run, the kids you bring up get all those extra reps against quality opponents, which is ourselves. Obviously there was some down time in there, but we had three weeks to the district championship and those freshmen and sophomores got so much better.
“Then we got a few more weeks after the shutdown, too. I told those kids ‘Football-wise, you’re already a grade ahead. So, I’m super excited for the future.. It looks promising.”
Playoff runs like the one Grayling just finished can be a launching pad to even more success.