By Andrew Johnson

WHITEHALL – Last Saturday’s Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Wrestling Tournament was a triumph in a lot of ways for Whitehall standouts Ira Jenkins and Max Brown.

Their team recaptured the tournament title it lost to Reeths-Puffer last year. Both Jenkins and Brown posted 3-0 records on the day and reached the 100-win marks for their careers. Brown is now 102-10 over three seasons, while Jenkins is 100-11.

But they both lost an opportunity that can never be retrieved, due to the circumstances of COVID-19.

In prior years, the GMAA tournament crowned a team champion based on overall points, as well as individual champions in each of the 13 weight classes.

But this season, due to overcrowding concerns, only the top four seeded teams – Whitehall, Reeths-Puffer, Orchard View and Ravenna – were invited to a special Tier 1 tournament, and the format was limited to team duals, with no competition for individual weight class titles.

Jenkins and Brown, both juniors, were individual city champions in both their freshman and sophomore years, and were working their way toward the proud distinction of being four-time champions, a pretty rare and impressive feat.

Now the best either of them will be able to do is win three individual titles in four years – assuming the individual competition is brought back next season.

Whitehall’s Ira Jenkins. Photo/Leo Valdez

“My brother (Riley Brown) was a four-time city champ,” said Brown, who is wrestling at 140 pounds this season after previously winning city titles at 125 and 130 pounds. “It was one of my goals, too, but I’ll overcome it. There are a bunch of challenges with this season, and I’m just glad we had a city meet overall.”

Jenkins was also slightly disappointed to miss the chance to compete for a third straight individual title, but is simply happy to be wrestling after the long delay to the start of the season.

“Personally, it’s not the end of the world,” said Jenkins, who took home city titles at 152 pounds in 2019 and 171 pounds in 2020, and wrestled at 285 on Saturday. “It’s just one of those things with the circumstances that you just have to accept. You kind of sweep it under the rug, I guess. It’s tough but there are a lot of things you can’t do this year, and I’m just grateful to have a season.”

The happy part for Jenkins, Brown and their teammates is that they beat Reeths-Puffer in the team competition and reclaimed the city team title that their program had won for 13 straight years, before losing it to R-P last season.

Whitehall’s Max Brown. Photo/Leo Valdez

They both played big roles in the intense 42-21 dual victory over the Rockets by pinning their opponents, which earned six team points, rather than the three awarded for normal point victories. Brown pinned his opponent in 28 seconds while Jenkins got his pin in 49 seconds.

“That was awesome,” Jenkins said. “Definitely being able to get revenge felt great. Just winning the tournament feels good.”

Of course, Jenkins and Brown don’t have to completely abandon the idea of winning individual titles this season. There is a bigger prize available for both of them at the end of the season, when they hope to again qualify for the individual state finals and perhaps go all the way this time, after several close calls in previous seasons.

They are both off to good starts, with Jenkins currently sporting a 9-0 record on the season, and Brown at 8-1.

“I want to come out on top,” said Brown who finished fourth in the state at 125 pounds in 2019 and third at 130 pounds in 2020. “The state tournament really hasn’t gone my way in the past, and that’s really a big goal of mine. It’s what I work for, and when you go that extra mile in practice, you think about being on top of the podium.”

Max Brown during one of his matches at the GMAA city tournament. Photo/Leo Valdez

Jenkins has also come close to a state title, finishing third at 152 pounds in 2019 and sixth at 171 pounds in 2020.

“I definitely want to win state this year,” said Jenkins, who will wrestle at 215 when the postseason tournament begins. “I’ve come up short the last couple of years, and I want to have a solid, undefeated season.”

Both Brown and Jenkins would also like to lead Whitehall wrestling back to the team state finals, where Vikings had been every year since 2016, before being eliminated in team districts last year by – you guessed it – Reeths-Puffer.

The district match was very close, with R-P pulling out a 34-30 victory.

Ira Jenkins finds high ground against Reeths-Puffer during the Vikings GMAA city title. Photo/Leo Valdez

“That was one of the toughest losses of my career,” Brown said. “It really showed us as a team that nothing is guaranteed, and it really has us working to get back to where we’ve been.”

If the Vikings do return to state prominence as a team, it will likely be partly due to the leadership that both Brown and Jenkins provide their teammates every day.

“They both work really hard,” said Whitehall Coach Justin Zeerip about the two juniors. “Ira is probably our hardest lead-by-example guy, and one of the hardest workers overall on the team. Max works really hard, as well, but when it comes to vocal leadership, I’d say Max may be a little more vocal.”