By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
WHITEHALL – Andrew Jennings, Jacob Knowlton and Matt Rohen know what it’s like to be on one of the best teams in the state.
They’ve been there and done that for a few years in a row.
Knowlton and Rohen were sophomores on a Whitehall soccer team that reached the regional finals in 2011 before falling short.
All three were on the team that lost again in the regional finals last year, in a heartbreaking double overtime shootout.
And they are well aware of their team’s near-miss history, with a state-runner up finish in 2008 and a state semifinal loss in 2010.
Now their time is almost up. They want to be part of the senior class that gets over the hump and finally brings home that elusive state championship trophy.
They will get their chance starting Wednesday, when Whitehall (21-3-1) faces Grand Rapids South Christian in the Division 3 state semifinals at Hope College at 7 p.m. The winner will advance to Saturday’s state title match.
Spring Lake is the other area team still standing. The Lakers will face Sturgis in the Division 2 state semifinals at Plainwell High School at 6:30 p.m.
“We’ve worked hard all these years, every practice, every game, and now everything comes down to this,” said Jennings, a forward who leads Whitehall with 24 goals and 22 assists this season.
“This is the game,” said Knowlton, a sweeper and team co-captain. “We have to go in and do what we know we can do. It’s pretty important to me.”
Ironically, all three seniors thought their best chance for state glory passed last year with the graduation of 11 teammates.
This season didn’t seem quite so hopeful, with 10 new starters and a bunch of new faces on the roster.
September losses to Grand Rapids Christian, Mona Shores and Western Michigan Christian left the team demoralized, according to Knowlton.
He said he started to wonder if this year’s team had the skill and unity to make another title run.
“It was almost selfish, like everyone was playing for themselves, and that included me,” Knowlton said.
Coach Bryan Mahan finally pulled the team together and told them what they had to do to salvage the season.
“He just sat us down and told us if we wanted to be great we would have to do it as a team,” said Rohen, a midfielder and team co-captain. “I think that made a big difference.”
The Vikings hit their pace after that, clinching the school’s seventh straight West Michigan Conference title (they haven’t lost a league match since 2009) and peaking just in time for the state tournament.
They’ve won 11 straight matches dating back to late September, with victories over Lakeview, Grant, Tri-County, Tawas Area and Traverse City Christian in the state tournament.
“It’s not that the team was getting down, but the guys from last year were used to playing with a big senior class that had been playing together for quite some time,”Mahan said. “And the senior class before that was the same type of thing.
“So at the beginning of this season we had a very small class of seniors along with a bunch of juniors and sophomores and they had to start over. It was kind of like everyone was standing around waiting to see who was going to be the leader.”
The seniors finally answered the leadership challenge and the rest of the team fell into place, according to Mahan.
“The first one was probably Matt Rohen,” the coach said. “The minute he stepped up, everybody jumped in and followed, and it just kind of happened from there.
“He’s a quiet leader, but when he says something, everyone pays attention.”
Rohen, Jennings and Knowton have unique skills that helped the team click, according to Mahan.
“Matt Rohen brings strength, confidence and a real casual leadership,” Mahan said. “He always has a smile, but when he gets on the field he’s a very serious competitor.
“Andrews Jennings is exceptionally skilled. He brings an instant and quick (offensive) attack with great control. At the start of the year a lot of it was just about Andrew, then suddenly he decided to become an offensive leader and the team changed completely.
“Jacob Knowlton had been an offensive playmaker, but he volunteered to play sweeper, (the last man back on defense) because nobody else could do it. That changed our team as well. Suddenly the defense just worked.”
Mahan said it’s hard to tell whether this will be the year his team finally claims a state title.
“You’ve got to get lucky, be good on the right days, and get the right bounce when you need it,” he said. “This team has a lot of potential. They are going to have to play well, but they can do it.”