By Andrew Johnson
On Friday, the Vikings will be wrestling in the state quarterfinals for the third straight year, and the fifth time in seven years.
They will face Birch Run in the Division 3 state quarterfinals at the Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo at 4:30 p.m.
The winner will advance to the semifinals Saturday at noon at the Wings Event Center against the survivor of the Dundee-Comstock Park quarterfinals.
The state championship match will be Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“We know them pretty well,” said Whitehall head coach Cliff Sandee about Birch Run. “The wrestling is pretty good over there. If one team can sneak out eight of the 14 matches they’ll have a good chance.
“But most of the time it’ll be a seven-seven match with a team needing bonus points to win the dual.”
The Vikings have been impressive so far in the state tournament. They rolled past Montague (67-6) in the first round of districts, then squeezed past Hart, another very good local team, 36-29 in the finals.
Whitehall plowed through regionals last week, beating Manistee 76-6 and Gladstone 51-21.
Overall, Whitehall is 30-3 on the season, and the three losses were all to elite teams. The Vikings lost to Warren Woods-Tower, a Division 2 state quarterfinalist; Stevensville Lakeshore; a Division 2 quarterfinalist; and Carson City Crystal, a Division 4 quarterfinalist.
The Vikings are led by a strong senior class that has accomplished a great deal over four years of wrestling. The seniors have won four West Michigan Conference titles, four Division 3 district titles, three regional titles, and four Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Tournament titles.
The top seniors, who are all expected to wrestle this weekend, are Hunter Bower (119 pounds, 32-19 record), Haddan Young (125, 28-20), Mitchell White (130, 33-10), Tom Balaskovitz (135, 41-9), Josh Thommen (145, 15-6), and Derek McCollum (160, 37-8).
“I think they must be the most complete class in Whitehall history,” said Sandee about his seniors. “All they’ve ever done is win everything they’ve wrestled in, besides their regional final as freshmen.”
While most successful wrestlers start very young, Balaskovitz only picked up the sport during his freshman year, after some convincing from Sandee.
“He’s our best leader and coolest story,” said Sandee. “I had all these seniors in class as seventh-graders, and I tried my hardest to talk him into wrestling, and finally convinced him when I taught him again as a ninth-grader.
“After I finally convinced him as a freshman, he started out 0-3, and he’s now a two time regional qualifier and has over 100 wins. He works harder than everybody.”
Another senior who stands out for Whitehall is McCollum, due to his toughness.
“He’s a Whitehall kid,” said Sandee. “Derek came in with some background in the sport, but never really put it all together until this year. He’s become a great wrestler and has stuck with the system. He’s the meanest kid in the state – we pride ourselves on being meaner and tougher.”
While the seniors provide the base of the attack for Whitehall, junior Allen Powers was the only Viking to win a championship at the Division 3 individual regionals last weekend.
Powers, who has been wrestling at 189, is 47-4 on the season.
“Everybody in state has kids cutting weight,” said Sandee, when discussing how Powers wrestled in the 125 weight class as a freshman, and now frequently wrestles at 189. “But that’s more of your grandpa’s wrestling and not real wrestling.
“We’ve got our boys lifting weights and getting as strong as possible. (Powers) is one of those kids who has gotten big and strong.”
While Sandee isn’t willing to tip his hand and reveal his lineup for Friday, he named a few key guys, besides the seniors listed above and Powers, who will likely see mat time in Kalamazoo.
They include freshman Matthew Goodrich (103, 25-21), junior Sam Baustert (112, 42-12), sophomore Kyler Honore (140, 26-17), junior Trenton Blanchard (152, 41-9), sophomore Kayleb Venema (171, 47-4), sophomore Jarrean Sargent (215, 27-22), sophomore Alex Britton (285, 11-7) and sophomore Hayden Brown (285, 6-8).
No matter what the lineup is on Friday, Sandee says he’s made it clear that team’s focus will be on the match at hand.
That might be hard for a team that has been to the quarterfinals three straight years, and has yet to win a state title, but Sandee knows the competition is too tough to look beyond the next opponent.
“We’re not really looking forward to the state finals yet,” the coach said. “We want to beat Birch Run.
“If we make it to the semifinals, it makes us a final four team in the state. But we’re taking it one match at a time.”