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Ira Jenkins has more links to Whitehall great Nate McLouth than you might know

Wrestling standout joins Abby Vander Kooi as 2022 Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete Award winners.

Photos by Scott DeCamp and Billy Mann | CatchMark

WHITEHALL – When Tom and Jessica Jenkins moved to Whitehall and purchased their home, little did they know that an all-time great grew up in that residence.

Twenty-two years ago, Nate McLouth was a Whitehall senior, who earned the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete Award. The eventual Major League Baseball All-Star honed his sweet swing in the back yard and basement of that home on the Shari Drive cul-de-sac just off White Lake.

It’s 2022, and Whitehall senior wrestling standout Ira Jenkins is the male winner of the MASHF’s annual scholar-athlete award. He joins big-time Western Michigan Christian runner Abby Vander Kooi with the distinction this year.

Jenkins and Vander Kooi will be honored during the Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony and banquet Saturday, June 18, at Trinity Health Arena. Tickets cost $40 and may be purchased through the MASHF.com website.

The 2022 Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame induction class features Abby Cole Hatch (volleyball, basketball), Todd Herremans (football), Dr. Calvin Johnson (basketball, football, track, cross country) and Mike Ribecky (football). Ken Erny, retired athletic director and Hall of Fame soccer coach, is receiving the Gene Young Distinguished Service Award.

“A grand slam class,” MASHF president Mike Mack said. “It’s going to be a great night.”

McLouth hit his share of home runs as a legendary baseball player at Whitehall. Similarly, Jenkins was a generational talent on the wrestling mats during his days as a Viking.

The University of Michigan signee posted back-to-back unbeaten seasons in rolling to consecutive state championships. Jenkins went 52-0 in the 285-pound weight class for Division 2 as a senior and 39-0 at 215 in Division 3 as a junior. His overall record at Whitehall was 183-11 with 151 career pins, and he was a four-time all-stater.

In the 2021 season, Jenkins set a Michigan high school record for shortest time on the mat through his state-title run. He’s also achieved All-American status and was ranked No. 11 nationally for the 285-pound weight class.

Jenkins’ impressive wrestling resume was built through countless hours of sweat and thousands of miles traveling across the country seeking out top-notch competition and training. And, like McLouth, much work was put in at home.

“There were rings in this tree and that tree and one in another one of the trees,” Tom Jenkins said in recalling what was discovered when they moved in to their home on Shari Drive. “Ed Huttenga, which is our old neighbor, he said they had batting cages (in the back yard) and stuff and down in his basement there were like hooks down there, too, for like an old cage.

“And then when we were digging up (the ground) for this little flower garden that Jess put back there, Wyatt (Ira’s younger brother) was digging through and found a baseball buried. It was like, ‘What the heck?’ and that’s how we found out that (McLouth) lived here.”

McLouth played MLB for 10 years, earning All-Star distinction and a Gold Glove in 2008 when he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball was obviously his game, but he was a well-rounded athlete at Whitehall.

Wrestling is Ira Jenkins’ specialty, but he also was a dominant defensive end for Whitehall’s football team as a junior. He was unable to play football as a senior because of an elbow injury he suffered during a national wrestling competition last summer.

McLouth committed to University of Michigan for baseball, but he opted for the professional route out of high school. Jenkins intends on wrestling heavyweight at U-M and he’ll also be in the Naval ROTC program.

Jenkins’ dream is to become a fighter pilot. His eyes lit up when asked about the new “Top Gun Maverick” movie.

“I remember having that conversation, I said, ‘Ira, the last kid that had a dream that lived in this house, he went to the absolute peak of his sport.’ I said, ‘You can do that, too,’” Tom Jenkins said.

Ira Jenkins boasted a 4.03 GPA at Whitehall, where he was class president for three years.

In addition to his athletic and academic exploits, he’s a talented musician. In February, moments after he captured a West Michigan Conference tournament title on the mat at Montague, Jenkins raced over to Whitehall High School’s auditorium and won a talent show playing the “Interstellar” theme on the piano.

He also plays guitar and enjoys drawing. Between matches at wrestling tournaments, Jenkins often filled time by putting his artistry skills on display with a sketch pad.

“I do it to live my life to the fullest that it can be,” Jenkins said about pursuing many interests. “Having all these things I can go to, like music and art and stuff, it’s a good escape for different things, I guess.”

Vander Kooi’s resume is equally impressive. The four-time cross country state champion also has won a pair of state titles in track in the 3200. As a freshman and sophomore, she earned All-American status with third-place finishes both years at the Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals.

Injuries suffered prior to her junior year impacted the Fremont native, but Vander Kooi is still taking her running talents to Grand Valley State University. She sported a 4.099 GPA and is a finalist for the Detroit Athletic Club Michigan High School Athlete of the Year award.

Western Michigan Christian senior Abby Vander Kooi is seen at the 43rd West Michigan Invitational Track Meet Wednesday, May 25, 2022, at Reeths-Puffer. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Other top-five finalists for the 2022 Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete Award included: Shelby’s Joseph Hayes, Mona Shores’ Mark Konecny, Oakridge’s Ethan Jozsa and Reeths-Puffer’s Klay Grant on the boys side; Shelby’s Kendall Zoulek, Spring Lake’s Meah Bajt, Whitehall’s Karli VanDuinen and Mona Shores’ Anabeth Hylland on the girls side.

Ira Jenkins seemed determined to reach great heights from the time he was very young. In fact, Tom Jenkins vividly remembers the time he and his son climbed a mountain at the Alyeska Resort in Alaska. There, father planted the seeds: The world can be yours.

“That was our first trip up there, a year or two before we moved up there. He had to have been maybe 1, 1 ½ (years old),” Tom Jenkins recalled. “I just remember having him on my shoulders there and we’re looking over (the landscape) and I literally said to him, I remember it clearly, ‘This is yours for the taking, buddy. You can be anything you want.’”

Said Ira Jenkins: “Back then, I was young and didn’t really comprehend it that much,” Ira Jenkins said. “But seeing where we were then and all the things that kind of came along throughout the years and all the support that I’ve had, we’ve come a long way. It’s been really fun.”

Tom Jenkins has son Ira Jenkins on his shoulders as they overlook the landscape at Alyeska in Alaska several years ago. (Courtesy of Tom Jenkins)

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