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Fast-starting, fourth-ranked Whitehall dominates in Division 3 team wrestling district

Vikings beat neighboring rival Montague, 62-16, to seize 11th district title in 12 years.

Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark

MONTAGUE — Whitehall established early in its Division 3 team wrestling district finals match against neighboring rival Montague Wednesday night that it’s “go time.” It’s state tournament time. This is serious.

The fourth-ranked Vikings won by pinfall in each of its first six matches with a combined mat time of just under 4 minutes en route to a 62-16 victory over the host Wildcats.

It’s the third straight district championship and 11th in 12 years for Whitehall (28-3), which advances to next Wednesday’s team regional at an away site yet to be determined. The Vikings host an individual district tournament this Saturday.

“It’s definitely the postseason stretch here. Also, with being a rivalry match, our guys are definitely amped up, ready to go,” Whitehall co-coach Collin Zeerip said about the fast start. “There were some individual matches there where we knew they were going to have some tough kids and our guys came out ready to go so that was great.”

Montague (17-10) opened the night with a 49-30 win over fellow West Michigan Conference opponent Orchard View in the district semifinals. The Wildcats and Cardinals split duals in the regular season.

Whitehall’s match against Montague was never in question as the Vikings jumped out to a 40-0 lead.

Darnell Mack (157 pounds) defeated Ayden Everett in 30 seconds to start Whitehall’s run of six-straight pins to open the match. Ryan Goodrich beat Issac French in 59 seconds at 165, Wyatt Jenkins took care of Cayden Hardwick in 40 seconds at 175, Jackson Cook defeated Tyler Risch in 25 seconds at 190, Blake Morningstar beat Landon Wood in 35 seconds at 215 and Shane Cook defeated Joe Winkleman in 49 seconds at 285.

The Vikings’ string of pinfalls ended at 106 pounds, but Cody Manzo still got the win over Savannah Winkleblack with a 12-4 major decision.

“I knew we’d end up facing Whitehall, but it’s kind of one of those things — Catch-22 — you’ve got to go wrestle and battle a (tough) team, but I want the kids to experience that. I want them to battle and show that we can compete,” Montague coach Kris Maddox said.

Montague’s first individual victory in the match came at 113, where James Thommen earned a 15-2 major decision over Whitehall’s Liam Waller.

Whitehall’s Nolan Taranko (120) and Blake English (144) picked up forfeit victories, while teammate Caden Varela defeated Kaiden Jeffery by injury default at 126 pounds.

Montague’s Christopher Aebig (132) and Tristan Winkleblack (150) won by pinfall in beating Max Krukowski (30 seconds) and Doug Verberkmos (2:14), respectively.

One of the more entertaining matches of the night came at 138. Whitehall’s Ryne Christensen built a big lead over Montague’s Fletcher Thommen, but Christensen got caught in a move and nearly got pinned. Christensen fought it off and went on to win by major decision, 16-7.

Whitehall’s Ryne Christensen, top, grapples with Montague’s Fletcher Thommen in an entertaining 138-pound match in the Division 3 team district finals Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at Montague High School. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

“Look at Fletcher there, putting Christensen on his back and almost pinning him. I mean, that would have been huge,” Maddox said. “But we’ve got to start believing in our abilities and the work we put in and good things will happen.”

Christensen, a junior who is a seasoned vet by now, said avoiding pins is a mental thing and that the Vikings talk to their freshmen all the time about it.

“It kind of gave me flashbacks of my freshman year when my only job was to not get pinned,” Christensen said about the match against Thommen.

“You’ve just got to fight. You kind of just got to roll with the punches. Sometimes you’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win and that was an example.”

Match winners for Montague in the semifinals were Tristan Winkleblack (150), Michael Moore (157), French (165), Malachi Plunkett (175), Savannah Winkleblack (106), James Thommen (113), Jeffries (126), Aebig (132) and Fletcher Thommen (138).

Those winning matches for Orchard View in the semifinals included Jaxon Tuttle (190), Bryce Bernard (215), Jamario Dash (285), Tayden Fotis (120) and Xander Randall (144).

Orchard View wrestling coach Chris Zitka watches his team compete against Montague in the semifinals of the Division 3 team district Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at Montague High School. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

“Overall, we took our bumps in the road. It kind of went as planned this season. We have a really young team, graduated a bunch of seniors last year and have all underclassmen besides one senior this year,” Orchard View coach Chris Zitka said.

“We knew we were coming in inexperienced and what you expect with that, but with what we had this year and the work that these guys put in, I mean, they always went out there and did their jobs. Couldn’t ask for anything more than what they gave us this year. We’ve just got a young team.”

Whitehall’s squad has a mix of young and more experienced wrestlers. What doesn’t change for the Vikings each year is the expectation to make their way to the team state finals at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo.

It appears that Whitehall will be heavily favored to win the regional next week, but you can never assume anything this time of year.

“Any district championship or regional championship is great to win. I was talking about it with my dad a little bit, sometimes these postseason, you know district titles, can be taken for granted,” Zeerip said.

“I’ve seen some great, great teams — very talented — go home at districts and that’s one thing I’ve kind of learned over the years is never take these championships for granted and just savor every single one of them.”

Jack Zeerip, the son of Whitehall co-wrestling coach Justin Zeerip, admires the district championship trophy after Whitehall defeated Montague, 62-16, in the finals of a Division 3 team wrestling district Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at Montague High School. In the semifinals, Montague beat Orchard View, 49-30. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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