By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – It’s a traditional power versus the new kid on the block Friday in a West Michigan Conference football showdown, and the winner will emerge on top of the league with one week to go.
The newcomer is Whitehall, which finished 1-8 last season and seemed light years away from competing for any type of championship.
Oakridge is 5-1 overall, 4-0 in the conference, and has been battering opponents since an ugly opening week loss to Grand Rapids West Catholic. Whitehall has stunned everyone with a perfect 6-0 overall record and 4-0 conference mark this season.
Oakridge has rolled past Montague 44-0, Hart 54-12, North Muskegon 27-0, Ravenna 36-20 and Shelby 42-0.
Whitehall has beaten Kelloggsville 54-24, Shelby 33-0, North Muskegon 14-7, Mason County Central 41-27, Montague 48-20 and Hart 72-0.
Something has to give when the two lock horns at Oakridge Friday. The winner will clinch at least a share of the conference championship.
“Things do seem different this year, with Whitehall on top and Montague (a traditional power) being a little bit down,” said Oakridge Coach Cary Harger. “With our conference you never know. There’s never really an off week in our league.”
Some observers might wonder if Whitehall will have more motivation Friday, because Oakridge has a case full of conference football trophies, and titles are routine for the Eagles.
But Oakridge hasn’t won an outright conference championship in a few years – Shelby won it last year, and Oakridge shared it with Shelby the year before.
Once you’ve been king of the hill, you don’t like being pushed off the peak.
“(The league title) is always a goal for us every year,” said Oakridge Coach Cary Harger. “It’s a big motivator for our kids, especially this year.”
The Eagles have impressed everyone by having a typically great season with mostly first-year varsity players in the crucial skill positions.
They include sophomore quarterback Brady Luttrull (51-for-90 passing for 1,068 yards and 13 touchdowns), junior running back Kolin Chahorski (851 yards rushing, six touchdowns), junior receiver Nate Wahr (18 catches for 296 yards and five touchdowns), and junior receiver James Cooper III (15 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns).
The only senior in the offensive backfield – Billy Drummond – has 179 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
“I knew they had the talent to compete at the top level of the conference,” Harger said. “Their youth and varsity inexperience were the big question marks – how long they could put together a string of good games, and how well.
“But these guys are huge competitors. They can’t wait to play every week. I don’t think they think of themselves as young.”
For the Whitehall players, the league showdown is a new experience. Despite their sudden success, and lack of familiarity with big games, Whitehall Coach Tony Sigmon says his team is focused and up for the challenge.
“I think their focus is pretty good right now,” said Sigmon, who said 1999 was the last time Whitehall has won the league title. “We thought we were good enough to be a playoff team, and now the reality is have a chance to win a share of the league title
“I like the way we practiced today and yesterday. Our kids are ready for this. This is what we’ve been striving for.”
Whitehall will have the more difficult road to an outright conference title. After playing Oakridge on Friday, the Vikings will face a very tough Ravenna squad, which has only lost once to date. Oakridge will wrap up its conference season against Mason County Central, which has lost three games.
But Sigmon says Ravenna is not even on the radar screen yet.
“I think when you get caught looking ahead you can stumble,” said Sigmon. “Our kids have been focused on the task at hand. We have to approach Oakridge like it’s a one-game season.”
Whitehall, like Oakridge, features multiple weapons on the ground and through the air.
They include quarterback Zarren Aylor (567 yards passing with nine touchdowns, 282 yards rushing and five touchdowns), running back Trip Thommen (816 yards rushing, 12 touchdowns, 7.4 yard average per carry), running back (230 yards Jwan Britton rushing), receiver Nolan Throne (11 catches for 252 yards, four touchdowns), and receiver Keenan Aylor (10 receptions for 200 yards, five touchdowns).
Throne and Aylor also play slot receiver and contribute to the running game.
“We’re pretty darned balanced,” Sigmon said. “We’re getting a lot of people involved. Opponents have to try to take away more than one player. That’s what makes us so difficult to defend.”