MONTAGUE – As Cody Kater sees it, his Montague girls basketball team is facing two opponents each day – the one on the court in the next game and COVID-19.
The unbeaten Wildcats took care of business on the floor Monday night, when they turned up their suffocating defense en route to a 37-29 victory over visiting rival Whitehall.
And they plan to continue doing all they can in the way of safety measures so that they can stay healthy as the coronavirus impacts many teams across the state.
Montague (13-0, 12-0 West Michigan Conference), which moved up one spot to No. 8 in The Associated Press Division 2 poll released Monday, is hoping to finish the regular season with a perfect record and looking to carry momentum into the state tournament next week.
In the district tournament, it’s either win or see the season end. The Wildcats are looking to control their destiny, but there is more to it than what happens on the court these days.
“The one nice thing is seeing these other teams make runs like the girls golf team, the football team and those things,” said Kater, referring to Montague’s girls golf squad, which was honored at halftime of Monday’s basketball game and received its championship rings for capturing the Division 4 state title in the fall.
Kater, who quarterbacked Montague to back-to-back Division 6 football state titles in 2008 and 2009, was offensive coordinator for the 2020 Wildcats team that rolled to the program’s third state title. Because of the unpredictable sports year, they did not finish until Jan. 22, 2021.
“We kind of have a good understanding of what needs to be done in the means of staying healthy and not spreading that virus in our own team,” Kater said. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job at that, but it keeps you up at night – it does. It wakes you up in the middle of the night where you start worrying about COVID and, ‘Oh, this is still going on. This is still real.’
“We’ve got to make sure we’re focusing on this and getting messages across and making sure we’re dotting our ‘I’s’ and crossing our ‘T’s.’”
Seniors Braquelle Osborne and Ally Hall led Montague with seven points apiece Monday. Osborne also recorded five assists and three steals. Freshman Kendall Osborne added six points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats, while senior Janae Koetje contributed six points and seven boards.
Senior Karleigh Jeffries scored nine points to pace Whitehall (8-6, 6-5), while senior Greta Hosticka and junior Charley Klint added seven points each.
After falling into an early 9-2 deficit, the Vikings fought their way back with 11 straight points. They held a lead until just past the halfway mark of the second quarter. Montague led 14-13 at break and kept Whitehall at arm’s length the rest of the way.
“We got it down to four a couple times (including) with three minutes left. We just had a couple of really boneheaded turnovers and you just can’t do that and beat a team like Montague,” Whitehall coach Derek Westerlund said. “But the girls battled. They fought and our defense was great. We’ve just got to make some shots and take care of the ball.”
Whitehall was closer to knocking off Montague on Feb. 16 when the Wildcats escaped with a 39-37 victory in the Vikings’ gym.
The teams could meet a third time on March 26, should they both advance to the Division 2 district finals at Spring Lake. In that event, one could expect another defensive battle.
Montague has been particularly stingy on defense. The Wildcats are allowing only 27.8 points per game. Only one opponent has cracked 40 points, and that was a couple weeks ago when Montague beat Lakes 8 Activities Conference-leading Ludington 49-45 in overtime on the road.
“They’re just athletic at every spot. They’re big – they have two or three girls that they can rotate inside. They have quick hands,” Westerlund said about what makes the Wildcats’ defense so tough. “The girls have played a lot, so they’re crafty with getting little steals and poking from behind. They just really have no weakness on the defensive end overall.”
Montague and Whitehall both have two regular-season games remaining, then it’s do-or-die time in the state tournament.
Kater said his team has been approaching recent games like they were district contests: Win the day, then advance to the next one.
“Two weeks ago, we had Hart on a Wednesday and we had a Ludington on a Friday. We had to win a big game to get into that game on a Friday. That’s kind of going to be like districts,” Kater said. “And last week we had three games again – we had two in a row and then we had a day off, then we played on Friday again up north. We tried to treat that like a (district) game.
“I think we are prepared to make a run. We’ve got to find our legs and find our shot,” added Kater, whose program has won 20 of its last 21 games going back to last season.
Coaches have always been fond of the “one game at a time” expression, but that carries extra meaning these days.
You never know when your last game will be. For instance, Division 1 two-time defending state champion Saginaw Heritage learned Monday that a player tested positive for COVID-19. That put the Hawks in a 10-day quarantine and means they’ll have to forfeit next Monday’s first-round district game. Their season is over.
“It is scary. I just want the girls to play as many games as they can,” Westerlund said. “But, to me, I’ve never thought about quarantine or stopping playing – who knows (what might happen)?
“It doesn’t matter if you’re going out to a restaurant, you don’t know what’s going to happen. To me, the more games these girls get to play, the better. We’re just going to be careful and keep playing games.”