By Mitchell Boatman
NORTH MUSKEGON — Over the course of the season, every game has playoff implications.
Friday night’s showdown between Whitehall and North Muskegon had more of a direct impact, though. With both teams sitting at five wins coming in, a ticket to the postseason was at stake.
The Vikings made the most of the opportunity with a 25-14 win on the Norsemen’s home field, earning their fourth consecutive playoff berth.
“It wasn’t pretty tonight. It wasn’t perfect,” said Whitehall head coach Tony Sigmon. “We did enough to get ahead and get comfortable there.”
Sigmon said it’s a relief to not have to worry about needing a win in Week 9, when the Vikings will play state-ranked Battle Creek Harper Creek.
“We know we’re in the playoffs,” the coach said. “We can put all our focus into Harper Creek. There won’t be that cloud hanging over our head, saying we’ve got to have this one or we’re going to turn our equipment in.”
For North Muskegon, the season now comes down to a showdown with the improved Orchard View Cardinals next week.
“There’s certainly a lot to play for,” said North Muskegon head coach Larry Witham. “We’ve taken a little look at OV. They have a couple of good running backs.
“We can’t let one loss turn into two. We’ll get back at it this weekend and come up with a game plan.”
A big reason the Vikings got the win was the second half performance of running back Kayleb Venema. The sophomore ran for three touchdowns to carry the Whitehall offense.
Despite the big game, Venema is keeping his focus on the journey ahead.
“It feels really good,” he said. “We worked hard all week and it feels good to get the win. We have to take it a week at a time and stay focused.”
“I feel like every week we have a kid that steps up,” Sigmon said. “I think this game was kind of made for Kayleb and his running style. We started running him and started seeing some success, so we made sure to stick with him.”
Whitehall started off hot when Terrell Harris returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead. It seemed like the high-powered Vikings, who average over 40 points per game, were headed for another big performance.
But both defenses came to play.
The score remained 6-0 until the 8:36 mark of the second quarter when Norse quarterback Jesse Cooke found De’Shary Warren with a 22-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
The touchdown was one of few positive plays for the Norse in the first half, when they totaled negative 18 yards of offense. They finished with negative 46 rushing yards in the game and 21 total yards.
“I think it starts out with our defensive end play, Brandon Rake and Ethan McKenzie,” Sigmon said. “Our defensive tackles can get after it, as well. I’m proud of how all of our defensive players played tonight.”
Defense continued to dominate the second half, and the score stayed tied for the first 10 minutes of the third quarter.
That’s when Venema took over.
His first score came from five yards out to make it 12-6 with 1:47 to play in the third. North Muskegon fumbled a snap on the first play of its next drive, allowing Venema to rip a 31-yard touchdown just 50 seconds after his first score.
The Vikings padded their lead with eight minutes to play on Venema’s third touchdown scamper, a 10-yard rush.
The Norse managed to score with three minutes remaining on another Cooke-to-Warren connection, this time covering 20 yards. The two-point conversion made it 25-14.
The Norse recovered an onside kick, but bobbled two snaps on the ensuing drive and couldn’t get their offense moving. They turned it over on downs with about :45 seconds left, then the Vikings took a knee to run out the clock.
Venema ran for 140 yards on 14 carries. Justin Brown was 5-for-8 passing for 22 yards and ran for 26 yards.
Cooke was 7-for-15 for 67 yards and two touchdowns through the air and added 19 rushing yards. Warren had four catches for 60 yards.