By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal
WHITEHALL – The players on the Whitehall football team don’t need any extra motivation this Friday.
After all, they’re playing archrival Montague in the annual Battle of White Lake, a game Whitehall hasn’t won since 2006. Also riding on the outcome is “The Bell,” the coveted trophy that goes to the winner.
But for twin brothers Zarren and Keenan Aylor, there is a bit more at stake. They transferred to Whitehall from Montague a few years ago, and wouldn’t mind notching a victory against their old school mates.
“It should be a fun game,” Keenan said with a smile.
“I’m really looking forward to this game and to get ‘The Bell’ back for Whitehall,” Zarren said. “We’ve gone from 1-8 (last season) to 4-0 and we just want to take it one step at a time. Montague is the next step and with that step is ‘The Bell.’”
Second-year Whitehall Coach Tony Sigmon seconds that motion.
“We’re 4-0 and right where we want to be playing our rivals this week,” Sigmon said. “This is a rivalry game so you can throw out the records. It’s been awhile since we’ve had ‘The Bell.’ We’d like to change that this week.”
A win Friday also would set up the Vikings to make a run at the West Michigan Conference title. The league title likely will be decided with key road games Oct. 10 at Oakridge and Oct. 17 at Ravenna.
The Aylor brothers, who are juniors, have both played key roles in the Vikings’ dramatic turnaround this season. Whitehall is off to an impressive 4-0 start 93-0 in the conference) after only winning one game last fall with many of the same players.
Zarren Aylor is a catalyst at quarterback in the Vikings’ veer offense and also rotates at defensive end. He’s carried the ball 60 times for 168 yards and four touchdowns, while completing 26-of-47 passes for 503 yards and seven TDs.
“(Zarren) allows us to have that run-pass threat,” Sigmon said. “He does a nice job running our offense and distributing the ball to other people. He makes good decisions.”
Other key playmakers in the backfield for the Vikings are senior Trip Thommen and junior Jwan Britton.
Keenan Aylor, meanwhile, is a key wide receiver and safety. He’s made eight catches for 181 yards (22.6 average) and five TDs. All of those touchdown catches, by the way, came on throws from his brother.
Defensively, he’s recorded 25 tackles, including 18 solos, with two interceptions.
“He’s made a big play every week,” Sigmon said about Keenan, who also has two rushes for 70 yards and a TD. “What he quietly does is have 10 tackles and one interception on the defensive side of the ball.
“Both are great athletes,” Sigmon said. “Both do things well. They play with confidence and a chip on their shoulders. They expect that we are going to win. It carries over to the rest of the team. And they are good teammates with others.”
Zarren said it’s an advantage to have his twin brother playing wide receiver because they know each other’s thinking and tendencies.
Keenan agrees, and added that their competitive nature has been a boost. They’ve been trying to best each other in various sports since they were small children, and in the process have pushed each other to become better athletes.
“We compete in everything,” Keenan said. “(Zarren) has always been better in football than me, but I’m a little better in basketball than him. I accept that he’s a little better in football, but he keeps trying to beat me in basketball.”
There have been times when their sibling competition has gotten a little rough, but they take it all in stride.
“One time we were playing football in the yard with our uncle,” Zarren recalled. “I was playing wide receiver and (Keenan) was playing cornerback.
“My uncle threw a deep pass and I caught it behind (Keenan) and then I ran into a tree. It was like running into an NFL linebacker. (Keenan) laughed because he knew he got beat on the play, but I got beat by the tree.”
Both brothers give a lot of credit to their Viking teammates for the squad’s success this season.
They say the turnaround is the result of a lot of hard work by everyone on the team, as well as strong leadership from a senior class that includes Thommen, Cheston Manns and linemen Stephen Ogden, Cain Priese, Gunner Lamb and Austin Hite.
They also say there’s a new sense of camaraderie on the team that wasn’t as noticeable last season.
“My team motivates me,” Keenan said. “This year, people were saying we wouldn’t be any good and never have been. So far, we’ve showed we can be good and we can compete.
“Everybody has bought into the system,” Keenan added. “We all care about each other as a team. Last year, we all did our own thing.”