By Justin Haggerty
Local Sports Journal
WHITEHALL – Second-year head coach Tony Sigmon has turned the Whitehall Vikings into something they haven’t been since 2003: District champions.
He’s also instilled in his team a quality that’s very crucial in the state playoffs: A never-say-die attitude.
The Vikings trailed by 17 points at halftime Friday in a Division 4 district final against Comstock Park, and it seemed as though their season was nearly over.
But Whitehall roared back in the second half to capture a stunning 41-36 victory in front of an ecstatic home crowd on a cold, wet evening.
The Vikings’ furious rally almost fell short, when Comstock Park drove to the Whitehall five-yard line in the final seconds. But the Whitehall defense stopped them on fourth-and-goal, and the Vikings captured the unlikely win.
Whitehall will play Grand Rapids South Christian next week in regional action.
“It’s just a great win,” said Sigmon, whose Vikings improved to 9-2 for the school’s first nine-win season since 1999, “This is one of those statement wins for your program. This is definitely one of them.”
“It felt just like a movie,” said Whitehall’s Chester Manns. “I don’t think any movie could have done it better.”
The night didn’t start so great for the Vikings. The Panthers took the opening drive 64 yards with quarterback Pat Naughton capping it off with a 13-yard touchdown run.
The first Whitehall possession lasted one play. It was a fumble that was recovered by Matt Hasman deep in Viking territory. After the Viking defense stood its ground, Comstock Park kicked a 23-yard field goal to take a 10-0 lead.
The Panthers got the ball back at their own 24 after a Viking punt. Five plays later, Naughton passed deep over the middle to standout junior Monterio Smith, who broke loose along the sideline and coasted to a 57-yard touchdown.
With 6:52 to play in the first quarter, Comstock Park was up 17-0.
Whitehall junior quarterback Zarren Aylor took control of the ensuing drive, rushing eight times for 54 yards and scoring from a yard out. The extra point made the score 17-7.
But the Panthers kept piling on. Their next drive covered 58 yards in just five plays, capped by a 13- yard Smith touchdown run. A missed extra point left the score 23-7 Comstock Park.
The Panthers then pulled off an inside kick, giving them the ball at the Whitehall 42. Naughton scored nine plays later from 10 yards out, putting the Panthers up 30-7.
With 1:07 to play in the first half, Zarren Aylor found brother Keenan Aylor deep over the middle for a 48-yard touchdown pass to bring Whitehall within 17 at halftime, 30-13.
“That was a big play for us,” Sigmon said.“That gave us a little bit of life, knowing that it was a two possession ballgame instead of being a four possession ballgame.”
Whitehall came out in the second half on a mission. The Vikings took the first drive 60 yards over 10 plays, with Zarren Aylor connecting with Manns for six yard touchdown pass. The PAT failed, leaving Comstock Park with a 30-19 edge.
The Whitehall defense forced a three and out, and the Vikings got the ball back on their own 20. Seven plays later, Aylor found Manns again, this time for a 34-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion was good, leaving the score 30-27.
“We had a little connection tonight,” Manns said. “That was easily the most fun football game I’ve ever played in.”
Not to be outdone, Comstock Park answered with a 37-yard scoring pass from Naughton to Nick Kemp. That left the Panthers on top 36-27 with 3:09 left in the third quarter.
Whitehall countered with a drive that featured three Zarren Aylor passes to Manns and an eight-yard touchdown run by Trip Thommen, narrowing the score to 36-34.
Fate then turned in Whitehall’s favor when Comstock Park lost a fumble at its own 22. Three plays later Thommen scored from 11 yards out, giving the Vikings their first lead, 41-36, with 3:02 to play.
The Panthers got the ball back and their drive went nowhere, but a pass interference call gave the visitors new life.
Comstock Park drove to the Whitehall five-yard line, where they had a fourth-and-goal with 20 seconds remaining. But the Vikings held, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.