WHITEHALL – Graycen Shepherd seems to have it all. He’s smart and well-spoken, athletic and strong. He’s quite witty, yet very hard-working. The Whitehall junior is the complete package.
One thing Shepherd claims to not do well, however, is wrestle. That’s where Whitehall senior and good buddy Ira Jenkins – who personifies many of Shepherd’s aforementioned traits – has him beat and it’s not even close.
Of course, very few in Michigan are close to Jenkins on the mat. He’s among the top high school wrestlers in the country.
“I (wrestled) and it was horrible. I knew two moves and it was run and hide,” Shepherd quipped. “It’s a gladiator (sport). I respect the heck out of that.
“It makes you shake your head how he can be that good and not cocky and completely humble. It’s jaw-dropping. If I was as good as him on the mat, I’d be talking to everybody.”
Jenkins is not what you’d call a talker. He’s definitely a doer.
Last week, Jenkins signed a national letter of intent to wrestle at the University of Michigan. During a ceremony in Whitehall’s Viking Center honoring him and senior Karli VanDuinen, who signed to bowl at Arkansas State, all the attention was enough to make him blush.
Jenkins’ response in that type of situation is more of the “Aw, shucks” variety. His disposition off the mat is more laid-back, although he’s a serious student with a 4.05 GPA and he served as class president for three years.
On the mat during competition or in the wrestling room, he possesses a much different mentality. Jenkins is deliberate and intelligent, but also aggressive and relentless. He’s athletic, strong and quick. He’s dominant, but always reaching for more.
“Ira’s super tough, and one thing that I think helps him in practice is that he’s super competitive and super disciplined. He never quits. He’s always doing all the right things, going the extra mile all the time,” said Justin Zeerip, co-coach for Whitehall’s wrestling team. “I think that’s why he’s had so much success is because he’s always doing the right thing when no one’s looking.”
The expression, “Champions are built on a thousand invisible mornings,” definitely applies to Jenkins. He’s sacrificed a lot and has grown by leaps and bounds in the sport since his humble beginnings as a gangly grade-schooler, who had no idea how to compete on the mat.
As a freshman, he weighed around 160 pounds and wrestled at 152. Now, he checks in at about 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, having packed on noticeable muscle mass since his junior season as a record-setting state champion in the 215-pound weight class of Division 3.
Jenkins tore through the 2021 season with a 39-0 record highlighted by 35 pins, one tech fall, one decision and two forfeits. He did not surrender a single offensive point all season.
Jenkins became the first Michigan high school wrestler since Fowlerville’s Adam Coon in 2013 to win all 10 of his state-tournament matches by first-period pin. He accomplished the feat in record time, pulling it off in 7 minutes, 20 seconds (449 seconds). In his championship match, Jenkins pinned Algonac’s Ryan Osterland in 44 seconds.
Jenkins has three, first-team all-state finishes in his first three seasons with Whitehall. His career record is 130-11 with 101 pins, 12 tech falls, two major decisions, six decisions, nine forfeits and 124 bonus-point victories.
“I just think back to how I was in the beginning of all of this. I don’t think I would have ever saw myself getting this far,” Jenkins said with a chuckle. “I just trusted the process, like my dad always told me. I had this goal, not specifically Michigan, and he just told me to trust the process and keep doing what you’re doing and obviously it’s worked.”
Jenkins has encountered some bumps in the road, but he’s continued to push forward. This is another area where he and Shepherd can relate to each other. The bookend, all-state-caliber defensive ends both missed football this fall with season-ending injuries.
In June, Jenkins suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow during the Junior National Duals in Tulsa, Okla. He underwent Tommy John surgery in July. Once cleared, he began rehabilitation and took it very seriously, as he always does when he’s in the weight room. He was able to dress for Whitehall’s 34-14 “Battle for the Bell” football victory over rival Montague on senior night, although he did not play.
Wrestling practice began this week for the Vikings. Jenkins is expecting to be back practicing next month with the goal of returning to competition in January.
Jenkins and Shepherd both have been putting in the time in the weight room at America’s Fitness Center in Whitehall. Jenkins is an inspiration for Shepherd, who is on the mend from a knee injury he suffered this summer. The 6-2, 230-pound Shepherd has been chasing his dream, too, with recent Division I football visits to the likes of Ohio, Dartmouth and Furman.
Last football season, Jenkins and Shepherd adopted the tandem nickname of “Shake ’N’ Bake,” after the lead characters from the movie “Talladega Nights.” That derived from their customary game-day trips to Bone Ends in Whitehall, where they’d both order “Ricki Bobby” burritos, which Shepherd said are “as big as my arm.”
Jenkins and Shepherd are like two peas in a pod.
“He’s a great dude – one of the best,” Shepherd said. “Football and lifting aside, he’ll come over. We’ll play guitar, so we’ll jam out and cool stuff like that. Off the field, he’s a friggin’ genius, too. … He’s a good dude to hang around.”
Jenkins, who also goes by the nicknames “Nordic Nightmare” from football and “Ivan Drago” from wrestling, has maintained sky-high goals. His ultimate goal is to become a fighter pilot.
At U-M, he may look to major in engineering and he aims to become a national champion. In the more immediate future with Whitehall, Jenkins plans to wrestle as a heavyweight this season. He’s looking forward to wrestling on the same team this season with younger brother Wyatt, who is an up-and-comer as a Vikings freshman.
The Zeerip brothers, who starred in high school at Hesperia and now coach Whitehall, both wrestled at U-M and completely understand that family dynamic.
“I think it’s hard to put into words what he’s meant to the program,” Collin Zeerip said. “I’ve known Ira since eighth grade: Super hard worker, very humble kid, leads by example. He’s one of the biggest kids in the room and he’s always trying to win every sprint – he has that type of attitude and toughness.
“It’s special being a top-100 recruit pound-for-pound, top-12 heavyweight in the country, and it just kind of reflects how tough he is.”
From a young age when he started wrestling, Jenkins learned it would be a grind, but he has embraced it.
He’s had many people in his corner, starting with his father Tom Jenkins, stepmom Jessica Jenkins and his brother. Tom Jenkins introduced Ira to the sport, and after some early adversity, he’s continued to grow in more ways than one.
“It’s definitely been fun,” Ira Jenkins said. “It’s just a lot of stuff like mentally and physically that you’ve got to do. It’s just a roller-coaster, I guess, but I mean it’s definitely been fun. I’ve got so many great memories from it.”
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