By Shawn Liverance
Local Sports Journal

Jacob Shepherd has been a member of two straight Oakridge football teams that have shared the West Michigan Conference championship.

The senior lineman and co-captain didn’t want any part of sharing another WMC title this season.

“I am sorry, but I didn’t want to share the championship with anybody,” said Shepherd. “I wanted to go out there and win it outright.”

Shepherd’s Eagles were able to do just that as they rallied from an early deficit to earn a 40-27 win over visiting Whitehall.

The win gave Oakridge its first outright West Michigan Conference championship since 2008.

“This is what we talked about as a team since the first day of practice,” Shepherd. “Winning the championship is just one of the goals we set this season.”

The win was also big in another way as it showed the Eagles could rally from its biggest deficit of the season.

“There was some good and bad seeing the position we were in early in the game,” Oakridge coach Cary Harger said. “It was actually good to be down. It let us see how we could handle it and the kids responded and didn’t fold.”

Having only trailed once this season in the first half and that was 2-0 to Shelby last week, the Eagles found themselves down 15-0 midway through the first quarter against the Vikings.

Whitehall’s Steven Sika hit Devontae Vance on 72-yard TD pass to open the scoring and after Javon Gonser’s fumble recovery resulted in a 3-yard TD run from Joe Sika, the Vikings led 15-0.

“Hey, we knew they had been in some tight games and were a good team,” Harger said. “We knew we just couldn’t show up, but we had to earn it and falling behind early woke us up a little.”

The Eagles responded quickly after Whitehall’s second score and Dan Shoop finished off a 76-yard drive with an 8-yard scoring run.

Oakridge’s Zach Murphy blocked a Whitehall field goal on the ensuing possession and Shoop scored three plays later on a 93-yard touchdown run.

“We made some big plays, but the biggest I thought was Shoop’s long run,” Harger said. “That got us back tied at that point.”

Oakridge took its first lead at 21-15 on Jerick Wambaugh’s 9-yard run with under 4 minutes left in the opening half. However, Whitehall tied the game at 21-21 on Steven Sika’s 55-yard scoring pass to his brother Joe Sika.

Tied at halftime, the Eagles turned to its defense in the second half.

Oakridge created a pair of Whitehall turnovers in the second half and didn’t let the Vikings score until the game’s final play when the Sika brothers hooked up on a 32-yard TD pass.

“It was easier to make the adjustments at halftime,” Harger said. “It is tough trying to make those during the game. We just needed to sit in the room at halftime and talk to everybody.”

Although Whitehall finished with 320 total yards, most came on three big plays in the opening half.

“We just missed a couple of plays coverage-wise in the that first half,” said Shepherd, who finished with eight tackles. “We knew we could shut them down. We just needed to change up a couple of things on defense.”

While shutting down Whitehall in the second half, the Eagles scored three touchdowns of their own after halftime.

Shoop added his third rushing score on a 20-yard run, Dom Greenawalt caught an 18-yard TD pass from Austin Wright and Francis Decker completed the scoring on a 38-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Decker, who finished with 186 yards on 17 carries, also saw some time at quarterback for the Eagles.

“We ran a little veer last week with Francis at quarterback against Ravenna earlier in the season,” Harger said. “It just adds a little wrinkle and makes defenses think a little more especially in playoff time.”

The Eagles finished with 390 yards of total offense, including 372 rushing yards.

Shoop added 163 yards rushing on 12 carries and Wambaugh finished with 32 yards on the ground.

Branden Jasso led the Oakridge defense with 10 tackles, Derek Masterman added nine and an interception and Greenawalt had two sacks and an interception.

Having wrapped up the conference championship, the Eagles will look to complete a perfect regular season with a win over their Carr Road neighbors Orchard View next week.

“To win the conference championship means you have to show up every week,” Harger said. “We accomplished that and as I told the guys after the game. Look around at each other. You are all conference champions. That is a great feeling and one they should all take pride in.”

Whitehall, which drops to 4-4, plays Grant in its season finale.

The Vikings were led in offense against Oakridge by Steven Sika, who rushed for 65 yards and was 8-of-16 passing for 199 yards.

Antwan Burks chipped in with 58 yards rushing for Whitehall and Vance caught four passes for 101 yards and Joe Sika had three catches for 93 yards.

Jevontae Sims had 14 tackles to lead the Whitehall defense.