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On the Mark: Enjoy the 2023 district football finals, no matter where they’re played

Whitehall-Big Rapids and North Muskegon-Lawton games both moved to neutral sites.

Much has been made about Whitehall moving Friday night’s Division 4 district football finals game against Big Rapids to the synthetic turf at Holton’s Red Devil Stadium.

Less has been made about North Muskegon’s midweek decision to move its Division 7 district championship game against Lawton to the turf of Oakridge’s Russell A. Erickson Stadium on Saturday.

In regards to the new district finals venue for Whitehall, can we set aside any arguments on ulterior motives for a couple days, support the young people playing in the games, and enjoy ourselves? Isn’t that the point?

Five teams from the West Michigan Conference are vying for district championships. They’ve worked hard to get to this point. How about we celebrate rather than debate?

Just a suggestion.

Now, let’s talk some football and CatchMark’s weekly picks. There are some real toss-ups on the docket this week.

Thankfully, Big Stone Therapies managing partner Jeremy VanKlompenburg is here with all the answers. Big Stone Therapies is a proud sponsor of CatchMark SportsNet. VanKlompenburg, a Minnesota native who has settled in nicely in the White Lake area, is our guest picker this week.

Big Stone Therapies is an independent outpatient physical therapy clinic. VanKlompenburg, who has been practicing for more than 10 years, is a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. He leads a team that treats orthopedic and neurological conditions for patients of all ages.

How will VanKlompenburg diagnose his picks this week? Watch him beat all of us!

Here are “On the Mark” picks for Week 11, the district finals, for games involving West Michigan Conference and Greater Muskegon area teams:


DIVISION 4: Big Rapids (9-1) vs. Whitehall (10-0), 7 p.m. Friday at Holton: Whitehall moving this game to Holton’s Red Devil Stadium ruffled some feathers, but it shouldn’t matter. The focus should be on these players (both teams) and nothing else.

Big Rapids is accustomed to playing on the fast track as Cardinal Stadium is a beautiful facility complete with synthetic turf. Whitehall’s home field is natural grass, but trust me when I say the Vikings love playing on turf — their speed and athleticism are even more evident.

Big Rapids is a scrappy program and Mike Selzer has done a really nice job there. The Cardinals gave Whitehall some problems early in last year’s playoff opener before the Vikings pulled away for a 42-12 victory. Few people thought Big Rapids would beat Spring Lake. The Cardinals trailed late, but never gave up and pulled out a 27-20 overtime victory.

Big Rapids should command Whitehall’s respect. If the Vikings bring a focused effort and play as they’re capable, then they should be able to take care of business.

Prediction: Whitehall 44, Big Rapids 14

In this file photo, Whitehall defeated Big Rapids, 42-12, in a Division 4 first-round playoff football game Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Whitehall, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

DIVISION 5: Oakridge (7-3) at Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-0), 7 p.m. Friday: Oakridge is well-versed in playoff football and the Eagles have had more than their share of postseason success. After all, Oakridge is in the playoffs for the 19th straight season and 28th time in 29 years.

Oakridge is also well-familiar with Grand Rapids parochial schools. Eagles playoff runs have ended at the hands of West Catholic or Grand Rapids Catholic Central six times since 2007.

The challenge for Oakridge on Friday is slowing down a West Catholic squad that has not skipped a beat since rolling to the Division 6 state title last season. The Falcons are coming off a 70-0 first-round win over Comstock Park. Their only close game this season came in Week 3, a 17-14 road win over Division 3 district finalist Coopersville.

Oakridge is playing its best football of the season and the Eagles are as healthy as they’ve been since the beginning of the season. They’ll need everyone firing on all cylinders to win this one.

Prediction: Grand Rapids West Catholic 35, Oakridge 14

DIVISION 6: Hart (9-1) at Reed City (7-3), 7 p.m. Friday: Hart has done nothing but make history this season, it seems. The Pirates have an opportunity to make even more: Becoming the first football team in school history to win a district title.

This will be Hart’s toughest test since suffering its lone loss to North Muskegon (34-14) in Week 5. Reed City is physical and the Coyotes are accustomed to playing in games such as these. Last year, they advanced to the Division 6 semifinals before losing a one-point heartbreaker to Negaunee.

Good news for Hart: The Pirates welcome a physical type of game and they operate a single-wing offense that provides for an extra blocker at the point of attack. They’ve been able to move the ball against every opponent so far.

The question for Hart: Are they ready to win a trophy? Sometimes you don’t know until you know.

Perhaps the Pirates will seize the moment.

Prediction: Hart 28, Reed City 26

In this file photo, Hart football players stand for the National Anthem prior to a victory over Ravenna on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023, in Hart, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

DIVISION 6: Manistee (8-2) at Kingsley (8-2), 7 p.m. Friday: Manistee coach Troy Bytwork announced before the season that this would be his last at the Mariners helm. Sad to see the good dudes go and Bytwork is definitely one of the good ones.

Bytwork has brought stability to a Manistee program that had been inconsistent through the years. This is the Mariners’ fourth straight playoff berth. Last year, Manistee earned the program’s first playoff win before falling in the district finals.

Manistee faces a tough task, traveling to face a Kingsley program that has been really tough in recent seasons. The Stags are 55-11 in the last six seasons, including this one, with two 10-win campaigns and one with a dozen victories.

Manistee will have to play its best game of the season. Wouldn’t it be great to send Bytwork out with a district title and maybe more?

Prediction: Kingsley 40, Manistee 20

Manistee football coach Troy Bytwork (Courtney Jimison | CatchMark)

DIVISION 7: Lawton (9-1) vs. North Muskegon (10-0), 1 p.m. Saturday at Oakridge: This is one of those classic matchups of brawn vs. skill. It’s Lawton’s size and physicality against North Muskegon’s speed on the perimeter.

Initially, North Muskegon had planned on hosting this game on the natural grass of Fred Jacks Memorial Field. But the surprising, heavy snowfall on Tuesday left the district with poor field conditions, power lines and trees down, and other issues. Therefore, the game was moved to Oakridge and its synthetic turf surface.

North Muskegon finished tied for the No. 1 spot in the final Associated Press Michigan high school football rankings of the season, while Lawton was No. 4. Lawton has steadily improved as a program over the years and really made some noise two years ago with a run to the Division 7 state finals and a narrow loss to Pewamo-Westphalia once there.

Playing on turf should help North Muskegon, but the Norsemen need to match Lawton’s physicality.

Prediction: North Muskegon 22, Lawton 20

North Muskegon defeated Union City, 27-14, in a Division 7 first-round playoff football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, at Fred Jacks Memorial Field in North Muskegon, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

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

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