By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

It might be cold outside, but things are starting to heat up in the West Michigan Conference boys basketball race.

With Shelby undefeated in league play, it’s turning into a battle for the next several spots.

And right now, the Whitehall Vikings are making a real claim as a real threat to Shelby’s dominance.

The Vikings played host Tuesday night to the Mason County Central Spartans, another team that has a real chance of challenging the Tigers. But in the second meeting of the season (the Spartans took Round 1 57-45), it was Whitehall that made the plays, while playing lock down defense, resulting in the exciting 61-52 victory over MCC.

Whitehall head coach Nate Aardema was pretty happy with his team’s play, especially with the Vikings’ balance and play on the defensive end.

“This is a great win for us,” said Aardema. “They’re a really good team, well coached, a couple All-League players, and for us to beat them the way we did, with good defense and contributions from all over the roster…well, we’re ecstatic.”

For Mason County, Head Coach Jeff Tuka is just happy to have his team take the floor.

“In our defense, this is our first game in two weeks,” lamented Tuka, whose squad hadn’t touched the floor since a narrow 51-50 loss to Oakridge. “We had some rust, and it took us awhile to knock it off. That takes nothing away from Whitehall’s effort, because they were fantastic tonight. We’ll work out some kinks, work on some fundamentals we’ve lost over that two-week break.”

It was slow-going for both teams to start, but eventually Whitehall’s Matt Rohen and Patrick Johnson banged home three-balls to get the Vikings offense in gear, while the Spartans struggled to score just three points in the first eight minutes.

Over five minutes would go by before MCC would score again, while Whithall senior center Matt Russell went to work inside, leading the way with six points in the second, and junior Austyn Henderson poured in five more in the frame, helping Whitehall to match a suddenly alive Mason County offense. In the final four minutes of the first half, the two teams combined for 25 points, with Whitehall leading 26-18 at the break.

A pedestrian third didn’t portend what awaited in the fourth, and the Vikings look in charge leading 40-31 after three.

Then Spartan senior shooter Kody Ambrose showed why he’s one of the area’s most explosive players, putting his teammates on his back to score 11 points in a four-minute stretch, while his teammates effectively pressured the Vikings into four quick turnovers, allowing MCC to cut Whitehall’s lead to two, 48-46.

“They made some steals, we made some sloppy passes, they knocked down some shots,” said Aardema.

Aardema called a timeout right then and there, imploring his kids to possess the dribble because “..if we have it, they can’t score!”

From that point on, Whitehall let off a 13-5 run, helped considerably by the Vikings’ clutch 15-of-19 foul line shooting, with Russell, and sophomore guards Keenan Aylor and Daniel DuBois all making their fourth-quarter free throw attempts (10-for-10) . For the game, Russell was 8-for-8 from the charity stripe.

“As big as he is, for Matt to go 8-for-8 from the line is such a change,” Aardema explained. “If you could have seen this kid two years ago, three years ago, you’d never believe it was the same kid.”

Mason County isn’t out of it, of course, with nearly half of the Spartan’s games left to be played.

“There are a lot of games to go,” said Tuka. “I’m a firm believer that you want to peak when the tournament comes around. We’ve got eight more games this month to get it all together. There’s still time.”

Russell led Whitehall with 16 points and 10 boards, while Johnson and Rohen both had 10 points, Johnson pulling down seven rebounds, and Rohen also dishing out four assists.

Ambrose finished with 18 points and five rebounds, with Anders Asiala scoring 11 points, and Josh Ritzema totaling nine points and six rebounds for MCC.