By Andrew Johnson
WHITEHALL – It’s usually up to coaches to inspire and motivate their teams.
But Whitehall wrestling coach Cliff Sandee said it’s been the other way around this season.
Sandee’s father passed away earlier this season, and the coach has leaned on his athletes for strength.
“I’ve gone through some personal stuff this year and with all that is going on, this has still been the most enjoyable time I’ve had as a coach,” Sandee said.
“I’m a 34-year-old man and I’ve been able to use these guys as a rock and my back bone. It’s pretty impressive when a 34-year-old man can rely on 17- and 18- year-olds to help him out.”
The Viking wrestlers have given Sandee plenty to be excited about.
After a two-year hiatus, they will return to the Division 3 state quarterfinals on Friday at Central Michigan University. If they win they will compete in the semifinals on Saturday at noon against the winner of the Dundee-Delton Kellogg quarterfinal.
The state finals are Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Whitehall lost to Remus Chippewa Hills in the regional finals last year, falling one step short of qualifying for the quarterfinals.
The Vikings last made the state semifinals in 2013 when they lost to Richmond, the team they’ll be facing in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Whitehall has a dual meet record of 25-1 this season. The Vikings won the West Michigan Conference title and the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Tournament along the way.
The lone dual loss for the Vikings was to Hudsonville, which will be competing in the Division 1 state quarterfinals on Friday.
Whitehall also performed extremely well at two elite tournaments, taking second place at the New Lothrop Hall of Fame Tournament and fourth place at the Goodrich Tournament of Champions, which annually involves many of the top teams in the state.
But the Vikings may be facing their toughest challenge to date on Friday, because Richmond is a wrestling powerhouse.
Richmond has won four of the past six Division 3 state titles, in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015. It finished second in the state in 2013 and 2014.
“Richmond has made at least the state quarterfinals eight straight years,” Sandee said. “Their record is 24-10 this year, so they’re beatable, but they’re a storied program who is used to being here.”
To beat Richmond, Whitehall’s outstanding seniors will probably have to step to the forefront.
They may finish at the most successful class in school history, with four GMAA city titles, four West Michigan Conference championships, four district titles, and two regional championships under its belt.
Sandee said he had his seniors over for dinner before the season, and they were unanimous in their goal.
“That was to get back to state,” Sandee said.
Whitehall will be led by four wrestlers who won regional championships last weekend in the individual state tournament – Reiley Brown (135), Jwan Britton (140), JoJo Dowdell (145) and Hunter Bower (103).
Whitehall has wrestlers with outstanding records, or at least a significant number of wins, in every weight class.
The Viking lineup on Friday will likely include the following wrestlers: Bower (103, 39-6), Trenton Blanchard (112, 31-12), Corey Robinson (119, 42-6), Tom Balaskovitz (125, 25-11), Allen Powers (125, 39-13), Dominick Haynes (130, 14-5), Brown (135, 45-1), Britton (140, 45-2), Josh Thommen (140, 34-13), Dowdell (145, 40-5), Joe Haynes (152, 37-18), Derek McCollom (160, 17-15), Jake Parmley (171, 40-16), Luke Morningstar (189, 40-15), and Jordin Patterson (285, 16-18).
Sandee said his message to the team on Friday will be no different than what it’s been all season.
“We want to be the most physical team on the mat and compete,” the coach said. “It’s been about taking care of the process all year and now it’s time to get the results.”