By Andrew Johnson
WHITEHALL – When area sports fans hear the name Kayleb Venema, most automatically think football.
There’s a very good reason for that. Over the past two season, Venema has been a standout running back for Whitehall, totaling 2,586 yards and 37 touchdowns. He also played a big role on defense, totaling 141 tackles over three seasons, including 35 for a loss.
What many fans may not know is that Venema has been just as successful in wrestling.
It’s not uncommon for football players to wrestle in the winter, often for strength and conditioning purposes, and frequently they fall in love with the sport.
“I’ve been wrestling for 11 years,” said Venema about when he got started on the mat. “I played football and my coach (Paul Pladies) got me into wrestling. I took it up then, and I’m extremely thankful because it’s taught me so many lessons.
“Wrestling requires me to be in top-notch shape. Football and wrestling help with each other so much, because they are both so physically and mentally challenging. They also both teach me to compete.”
As it turned out, Venema became a very good wrestler, and stands a pretty good chance of becoming an individual state champion before he’s done.
He keeps inching closer and closer.
As a sophomore, he finished sixth in the state in Division 3 in the 171-pound weight class. Last season he advanced all the way to the state title match in the 189-pound class, before falling 9-3.
He has one more crack at reaching the top, and plans to give it his all.
“It would mean everything,” said Venema, who recently won the 150th match of his prep wrestling career. “You’re always doing something with the goal of trying to be the best, and I’m striving to win it all this year.”
Whitehall co-head coach Justin Zeerip believes Venema has the capability to make his goals a reality this season.
“He was really close last year,” Zeerip said. “He was really close to getting a near fall (in the title match) and blowing it open. He’s had a really good offseason with some camps and lifting, along with a good attitude. He’s been looking strong this year.
“He’s a pretty athletic kid and he’s very savvy and crafty. He’s always aware of the time in the match and the score. Positionally, he knows where he needs to be, and he’s had a lot of experience that helps him.”
It would be easy for Venema to get lost in his individual accomplishments whether on the football field or wrestling mat, but he’s still a humble “team first” type of athlete.
That’s a fun thing to be at Whitehall, because the wrestling team is a perennial powerhouse, with eight straight West Michigan Conference championships, 13 consecutive Greater Muskegon Athletic Association Tournament titles, and four straight Division 3 regional championships.
Last year Whitehall came extremely close to qualifying for the Division 3 team state finals, losing to perennial power Dundee 35-27 in the semifinals. The Vikings have been in the state semis three times in the past four years, losing to Dundee every time. But the scores have been closer every season, and the Vikings continue to work toward the ultimate team goal.
Venema did his part in the close semifinal loss last season, winning his match 14-7.
“I’d say team comes first,” said Venema, who is 15-1 so far this season, following two more wins on Wednesday night. “Doing what I need to do will help the team, and everything individually will fall in place. Wrestling is a team sport and my success will fall in behind that.”
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We’ve obviously been very successful and I’m very grateful to be a part of that.”
If the Vikings have another championship season, Zeerip has no doubt that Venema’s leadership will play a big role.
“He’s a very smart kid,” the coach said. “The other guys look up to him, and he’s just an all-around good kid. He has all the things you’d want your kid to be like.”