By Andrew Johnson

WHITEHALL – ­­­­­Nobody would have been shocked if the Whitehall wrestling team had taken a step back this season after losing eight wrestlers from last year’s state semifinal squad.

But that’s not the case. The Vikings have a lot of new faces in the lineup, but they’ve posted another great season, and are back in the Division 3 state quarterfinals.

JoJo Dowdell wraps up his opponent during a match earlier this season. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Vikings will face Lake Fenton Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Central Michigan University. If they win they will advance to Saturday’s semifinals against Richmond (which drew a bye in the quarterfinals) at 11:30 a.m.

A semifinal win would put Whitehall in Saturday’s state championship match at 6 p.m.

While graduation cost the Vikings a lot of key wrestlers from last year’s team, Coach Cliff Sandee said his young team – which has only three seniors in the starting lineup – has grown throughout the season.

“They’ve grown tremendously in leadership and mental fortitude, along with just being consistent every day in practice,” said Sandee, whose team lost to Dundee in last year’s Division 3 semifinals. “We went from having strong seniors last year to having more juniors and sophomores start to take over the future.”

Whitehall has had another terrific season, posting a 20-3 record and once again winning the West Michigan Conference championship, Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Tournament title, and district and regional team championships.

While those titles are nice, Sandee says his team is eyeing something bigger.

“We talk about how November, December, and January are pretty much practice,” said Sandee, whose team also advanced to the state semifinals in 2012 and 2013. “We want trophies that are shaped like the state of Michigan.”

Kayleb Venema gets the best of his opponent during a Whitehall match. Photo/Leo Valdez

The Vikings will rely heavily on their depth this weekend, and they have plenty of it. That was evident in last weekend’s individual regionals, when nine Whitehall wrestlers finished in the top four of their weight classes and qualified for next week’s individual state finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

“We had 10 (of 14) weight classes qualify for regionals,” Sandee said. “Nine out of the 10 are state qualifiers. Our depth between the 103 and 160 weight classes is pretty nice.”

The Vikings’ anticipated lineup for the quarterfinals is full of wrestlers with winning records.

It includes Sam Baustert (103, state qualifier, 28-15), Hunter Bower (112, two-time state qualifier, 24-12), Haddan Young (119, state qualifier, 30-17), Mitchell White (125, state qualifier, 31-13), Trenton Blanchard (130, state qualifier, 38-11) and Dominick Haynes (135, 31-9).

The rest of the lineup is Josh Thommen (140, two-time state qualifier, 35-10), Allen Powers (145, three-time state qualifier, 32-13), JoJo Dowdell (152, three-time state qualifier, 39-9), Kayleb Vennema (160, state qualifier, 36-10), Derek McCollom (171, 23-15), Logen Thomas (189, 7-6), Jarren Sargent (215, 20-25) and Jordin Patterson (285, 19-21).

Only Patterson, Haynes, and Dowdell are seniors. That speaks to the talent of the younger wrestlers, but also highlights the Vikings’ lack of overall experience.

“Our youth is our weakness,” Sandee said. “You can look at the records and see that nobody has better than an 80 percent win rate. Guys take losses when they shouldn’t at times, but with the depth we have we can also count on a few guys getting wins when they probably shouldn’t.”

Some Whitehall fans may be thinking past the quarterfinals and focusing on a rematch with Richmond. Whitehall rallied to beat Richmond in an exciting match in last year’s quarterfinals.

Richmond drew an automatic bye in this year’s quarterfinal round because its scheduled opponent, Mt. Morris, was disqualified for violating weight rules in team regionals.

But the Vikings are not taking Lake Fenton lightly at all.

“They’re a mainstay and I think they’ve been at state every year we have,” Sandee said. “They have two of the best wrestlers in the state, including their heavyweight (Trent Hillger), who is signed to wrestle at the University of Wisconsin.”