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Whitehall football’s dream dashed in district upset by Big Rapids, and it was no fluke (column)

Vikings had state-title hopes, Cardinals made more plays – including blocked field goal as time expired – in 28-27 stunner.

Photos by Tonya Pardon for CatchMark (Pardon Photography)

HOLTON – Since the heartbreaking regional finals loss last November on a bitter cold night at East Kentwood’s Falcon Stadium, the nucleus of Whitehall’s football team made a vow.

The Vikings came up just short against eventual Division 4 state champion Grand Rapids South Christian in 2022. Many tears fell in their locker room after that 28-21 loss. They didn’t want to feel that way again.

Sports can be beautiful and brutal. They can produce the biggest rush of adrenaline. Around the next corner, you can be knocked when you’re least expecting it. With visions of Ford Field and the school’s first state football title in their minds, the Vikings experienced devastation again Friday night at Holton’s Red Devil Stadium.

A determined, confident, and well-executing Big Rapids squad stunned top-ranked Whitehall, 28-27, in a Division 4 district championship matchup.

Big Rapids senior Riley Vennix, who commanded the Cardinals’ offense to a “T” from his quarterback spot, made the biggest play of the game defensively. He came flying in from the left edge and blocked Whitehall’s 32-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the game to preserve his team’s thrilling victory.

Just like that, Vennix and his crew avenged last year’s 42-12 playoff-opening loss at Whitehall and left the Vikings in disbelief.

“It’s playoff football. They made enough plays and we didn’t – that’s just reality,” Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon said. “Our kids are allowed to hurt right now. Obviously, this is going to weigh on all of us and it’s going to weigh on me heavily as well. That’s life.”

Big Rapids (10-1) will get a shot at South Christian (8-2) in next week’s regional finals rather than Whitehall realizing a long-awaited rematch with the Sailors. South Christian defeated Forest Hills Eastern, 22-14, on Friday.

Whitehall had big plans. Big Rapids had other ideas.

Don’t forget, the opponent has dreams and goals as well. Some might tell you that Whitehall overlooked Big Rapids and was focused on a rematch with South Christian – that depends on whom you ask. But one thing was clear: Big Rapids had its sights squarely on Whitehall. The Cardinals got their long-awaited rematch and they capitalized.

“Whitehall was on our mind all of the offseason,” said Big Rapids junior Garret Foster, who was a menace to the Whitehall defense all night with nine receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns. “We wanted this game. We wanted it back and that’s what we got and we took advantage of it.”

These are the glory years in Whitehall’s football history. The Vikings posted a season-straight 9-0 regular season and finish with a 10-1 overall record. It came on the heels of an 11-1 campaign last fall.

This fall, Whitehall set a school record for shutouts in a season with six. The Vikings allowed only seven points in league play en route to a third straight West Michigan Conference title, the last two championships coming in the Lakes Division.

Whitehall had all the pieces last year and this year to make state-title runs. The Vikings were fast and physical. But, sometimes, you need that little extra to push you over the top. You need laser focus and it certainly doesn’t hurt to get some breaks.

“I think the lesson is, nothing is promised,” said Whitehall senior Malcolm Earvin, who scored on a 1-yard run and a 22-yard TD pass in his final game as a Viking. “You’ve just got to keep working until you achieve all your goals, keep pushing forward after that. You take no days off, take no breaks.”

Whitehall senior Malcolm Earvin (Courtney Jimison | CatchMark)

According to Earvin, Whitehall did not overlook Big Rapids. From the start of Friday’s game, the Cardinals were equal to the challenge presented by the Vikings.

The difference came down to execution and Big Rapids’ ball-control offense. The Cardinals were 5-of-5 on fourth-down conversions and 8-for-17 on third down compared to 3-of-5 and 0-for-2, respectively, for the Vikings.

Big Rapids ran 71 plays compared to 48 for Whitehall, even though the Vikings outgained the Cardinals in total yards, 384-278.

Whitehall dominated in the running game, 143-50, and held an edge in passing yardage (241-228). But Big Rapids had zero turnovers compared to Whitehall’s fumble early in the game.

The difference came down to play-making opportunities, especially in crunch time. Much like last year’s regional loss to South Christian, Whitehall had chances to seize the victory but could not capitalize.

Credit Big Rapids. The Cardinals are playing with a ton of confidence right now. Last week, they rallied for a 27-20 overtime victory at Spring Lake.

Will Big Rapids have enough to take down the defending state champ next week? The Cardinals will have their doubters again, but as they showed against Whitehall, none of the outside noise matters.

“Everyone was doubting us all week and we were coming off a big win from last week. Our coaches tell us, we know that we’re good. We’re great – we’re a great team,” said Vennix, a southpaw who was 24-of-35 passing for 222 yards with three TDs and no interceptions.

Vennix’s 5-yard TD run with 45 seconds left and the ensuing PAT by Jace Heck put Big Rapids in front by a point. Vennix’s blocked field goal with 3 seconds left sealed the victory in dramatic fashion.

Whitehall went ahead with 5:45 left in the game on Earvin’s 22-yard TD pass from senior Kyle Stratton, but the PAT was wide to leave the score at 27-21.

Stratton ran for TD runs of 3 and 5 yards, and he finished with 72 rushing yards on 12 carries. The three-year starter completed 12 of 16 passes for 241 yards with the TD and no picks in his final game as a Viking.

Whitehall senior Trannon Aylor caught five passes for 99 yards, while junior Camden Thompson made three receptions for 70 yards.

Aylor led the Vikings defense from his safety spot with seven solo tackles and four assists. Stratton made six solo stops from his cornerback position, while Thompson had six solos and three assists as the other safety. Seniors Trenton TenBrock and Kadin Waller as well as junior Parker Mott each had six solo stops to go along with a handful of assists.

Whitehall coaches console kicker Kyler Frees after the Vikings’ 28-27 upset loss to Big Rapids in a Division 4 district final Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, at Red Devil Stadium in Holton, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Whitehall loses a talented and tight-knit senior group. The cupboard will not be bare next season.

It’s going to take a while for the Vikings to come to grips with this loss – their dream shattered. But, in time, they should look back fondly on a run that created so many memories and unbreakable bonds.

Whitehall senior lineman Jason Smith put it eloquently despite the raw emotion after the crushing defeat.

“I came to Whitehall sophomore year. Coming in, I was welcomed right away,” he said. “I mean, I joined the football team and I felt like I had brothers, quicker than I’ve ever felt. I’ve got real brothers and they felt just like them.

“You look back on the things that you did wrong on and you regret it, but you remember that those are always your brothers and you’ll always love them.”

Whitehall senior Jason Smith (Courtney Jimison | CatchMark)

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

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