LSJ preview: Relaxed Whitehall Vikings seek another playoff run

Last month, the Local Sports Journal published a 24-page high school football preview section. Here is the preview story on the Whitehall Vikings. If you would like to purchase a copy of the football section, send an email to sports@localsportsjournal.com
By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
The way the rest of the league sees it, Whitehall could very well be the best team in the West Michigan Conference.
That is to say, the squad is stacked with returning talent, including a tough, physical offensive line, an experienced quarterback, perhaps the best running back in the WMC, and a big, aggressive defense.

From left, Joe Sika, Steven Sika and Antwan Burks will lead the Whitehall Vikings into the 2012 season. Photo by Ron Rop.

And, after making the playoffs last season for the first time since the 2006 campaign in which they finished 9-2, it’s not tough to say Whitehall could do plenty of damage in the postseason this time around.
But you’d never know the Vikings were feeling any pressure at all, what with the way teammates tease each other at every turn.
“Come on, Sikas,” called out senior Antwan Burks – a galloping running back with plenty of moves and surprising strength – to twin brothers Steven and Joe Sika. “They are always late. Even when they’re early, they end up being late.”
While Burks’ claim may be true off the field, once the twins are on the field, they’re seldom late for anything.
Steven, the shyer of the two, turned a rough sophomore season, in which the team won just two gam
with him under center, into one of the area’s best run/passers in 2011.
Joe suffered some bumps as a sophomore, but emerged last season as a wrecking ball at the safety position.
The trio goofs around some more, but they, along with the rest of their teammates, carry the relaxed confidence of a champion just waiting to get the season started.
Spend 10 minutes with the Vikings and there will be little doubt as to where this relaxed confidence originates: Head coach Cliff Sandee.
Sandee, who also coaches wrestling at Whitehall, can seem at first to be exclusively a jolly fellow with a love for joking with his players and staff. Yet, that all changes when he stalks the sidelines during practices and games, turning from a loveable lug into a fierce competitor.
“Coach Sandee is more than just a coach,” Steven Sika said. “He’s pushed us to be better. He’s pushed us to go harder.”
And now there are two Sandees stalking the sidelines: Cliff’s big brother, Brent Sandee, joins the Vikings this season as co-head coach and offensive coordinator.
“He might be a little smaller than me,” Cliff said with a laugh, “but there is still some of that ‘big brother’ stuff going on.”
Brent Sandee, a teacher at Hudsonville, has been offensive coordinator at Grand Rapids Union and, most recently, at Kenowa Hills. Cliff said getting Brent was quite a land for Whitehall.
“I told the guys that we’re pretty lucky to get him,” said Cliff, “because he is the best coach I’ve ever coached with. It’s pretty cool that we’re together again. When the opportunity came up, we both knew we had to do it.”
The effort to keep Steven Sika and Burks’ uniforms clean will be led by senior center Travis Friend and senior guard Logan Morningstar.
On the defensive side of the ball, Joe Sika will be joined by senior linebacker Derrick Brandish and senior defensive lineman Tyler Goerbig. If Goerbig, who was injured last year, returns to form in 2012, he’ll continue to draw plenty of college looks.
Senior Devonte Simms, who saw significant playing time last year, will join Brandish on the linebacking corps, while junior Javon Gonser is figured to be a force on the defensive line.
The defense, however, must find a way to replace Logan Potter and John Beeghly; the duo did a good job of containing the ends, forcing plays toward the heart of the defense.
“It’s a must in this conference,” Cliff Sandee said.
As critical as that is, Cliff Sandee knows he’s got something special on his hands.
“This is a big, physical group,” Cliff Sandee said. “They all act like they have chips on their shoulders.”
Cliff Sandee has been known to separate his seasons into fours: each third of the regular season and then the playoffs. The thinking is, have a bad first quarter of the season and there’s still a chance at redemption. Or, have an outstanding first quarter, and you still have some work to do.
But this year, Week 1 against Kelloggsville has Sandee’s attention.
That’s because beyond the Rockets lies at Ravenna, home against Shelby and North Muskegon, and at rival Montague in Week 5. The fact that four of his first five opponents made the playoffs in 2011 doesn’t escape him. But it also doesn’t scare him.
“Talking with the seniors,” he said, “we said, “It’s disappointing that at Whitehall, just making a playoff appearance is considered a successful season. We’ve talked a bit about wanting more than that.”
It seems to have made an impression.
“I don’t know if we were as conditioned last year,” said Burks. “Losing (to Sparta 25-18 in the opening round of the playoffs) has made us work harder.”
“We’re more disciplined,” added Joe Sika. “We want to go further.”

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