In a sport specialized in precision and timing, running an offense and being the sole distributor of the football is a pressure-packed role and the leadership required for it can sometimes be cumbersome.
Caleb Montgomery was thrust into the limelight as a junior, picking up Spring Lake football's starting quarterback job on the heels of the departure of former All-Conference quarterback Cam Ball.
In their second run through the O-K Blue Conference, the first under Montgomery, the Lakers finished the 2017 season 0-9, marking only their second winless campaign in program history.
Montgomery wasn't to blame. A depleted roster, inexperienced skill players, a brutal conference schedule featuring two defending state champions and a midseason playbook overhaul made it a rough go for the budding quarterback.
"We really threw him into the fire as the starting quarterback," said third-year Spring Lake head coach Dan Start. "He was bigger and stronger than the other kids, was really a running back-type athlete with a strong arm — he just didn't know where to point it.
"That year, we were a wishbone, flexbone team. We really took advantage of our running game. Then, we transitioned in the middle of the year and just threw him in. ‘Hey, now we're going four wide, and you have to throw the football and read defenses and everything.’
"That is when he lost some confidence. That's on me."
In their Week 6 trip to Coopersville, Montgomery threw four interceptions. It was a low point.
"I wasn't used to passing that much in the old system," he said. "So, coming in last year, it was all new. I didn't have the confidence I needed throwing the ball, and I lost it during the season."
When the dust settled on the Lakers' winless season, Montgomery faced a choice – retire the playbook and accept defeat, or double down for another shot his senior year.
It was no question. He did not even hesitate.
As soon as 2017 ended, Montgomery set to work, making sure 0-9 wouldn't happen again on his watch. The winter and spring saw film study, weight training and passing practice, which bled right into seven-on-seven practice in the summer.
By the time camp started this month, Montgomery was a new quarterback, hell-bent on leading his Lakers to victory in 2018 and overwhelmingly equipped to do so.
"He has done an excellent job learning the position and getting better at his game. He really took ownership of improving," Start said. "Coming in for board time, going through packets, throwing in the mornings and studying defenses.
"He missed one day in the weight room. He's probably one of the strongest kids in the school, no question. He broke our school bench-pressing record with 335 pounds, and he got there because he just works his tail off."
A complete offseason of work proved that confidence can be a choice, and that mind can build matter.
"He never wants to waste a mistake," Start said. "When he makes mistakes now, he doesn't get frustrated and put his head down, he wants to learn.
"Last year, he was really tense under center, because he wanted to do things right. He was afraid of making mistakes. This year, he is so much more comfortable with everything we are doing."
The commitment has rubbed off on his teammates in the best way possible. The Spring Lake football team was made up of just 18 athletes in 2016. Now, more than 30 players occupy the varsity roster for the upcoming season.
"He and his fellow seniors did a great job recruiting the hallways and to get guys that way," Start said. "We have juniors and seniors that weren't playing before out this year because they want to be a part of what we are building.
"Kids look up to Caleb, no question. His personality lends itself to being a quarterback. The other kids see the work he has put in and it makes a difference for them, too. They know that he is going to be in the weight room, so they better be there, too."
With confidence and commitment comes clarity. All the hard work could seem off-putting and after picking up just two wins over the past two seasons, the football team may be a little burned out ahead of another arduous O-K Blue season. It is one thing to motivate in the offseason, but another to stay in high spirits when you're staring down the five-time defending Division 5 state champs in the meat of your conference schedule.
Montgomery is prepared for that. That infectious personality Coach Start mentioned? It's at the center of his goals for the year.
"We obviously want to win games," Montgomery said. "But, my goal is to keep everyone in that positive mindset throughout the season. Everyone has been working really hard over the offseason with wins in mind. I want to make sure we keep a positive attitude. That will help us find some more leaders for the future and keep everyone doing the right things.
"A positive mindset is all you can really bring to the table. You have to keep people's heads up. So far, it is pretty easy to keep everyone motivated. No one wants to repeat last season.
"That wasn't a good feeling. You can always look forward to getting better, so that is what we are doing."
"He could have cowered away and said, ‘Coach, I don't want to play quarterback,'" Start said. "But, he didn't. He stepped up and said, ‘Alright coach, what do I have to do.' He understands failure and that it is going to happen, but what is important is how you respond to it.
"If we can build the program around that mentality, which is what we are trying to do, the sky is the limit."
With their leader reinvented and a class of now experienced, hungry seniors ready to make a play, Spring Lake football is ready to enter the final stages of their rebuild. After bottoming out in 2017, there is nowhere to go but up, and by the looks of it, an upswing is inevitable.
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