WHITEHALL – Justin Zeerip commands respect in the Whitehall wrestling room.
How much? Let’s just say, when Vikings senior wrestlers had the chance to impersonate their coach during fun profile videos filmed during VanDyk Mortgage West Michigan Conference media day recently, none of them were touching that one.
“It’s a lot of one-on-one stuff and you want to do your best to stay on their good side,” smiling Whitehall senior Nick Blanchard said, referring to encounters with co-coaching brothers Justin and Collin Zeerip on the mat during practices. “So, if a question like that comes up, you just kind of wash it off. You don’t want to do any more work than you have to.
“There’s always time to have good laughs and stuff like that, but I think everybody knows there’s a time and place. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
Justin Zeerip tends to be more stoic by nature, but he’s had plenty of reasons to smile this year.
In late March, he and his brother guided Whitehall to the program’s first state runner-up finish since 1984. The Vikings (27-2) advanced to the Division 3 finals before falling to powerhouse Dundee, which finished No. 12 in the national rankings.
The very next weekend, Whitehall made more history with five all-staters and two champions (Ira Jenkins and Max Brown) at the individual state finals.
Fast forward to this fall, and the honors rolled in for Justin Zeerip. He was named the Michigan High School Coaches Association wrestling coach of the year for all divisions as well as the Michigan Wrestling Association Division 3 coach of the year.
Zeerip joined his father with the MWA recognition. Fremont’s Craig Zeerip, who coached his sons in standout careers at Hesperia, was named the Division 2 coach of the year.
“It’s really cool. Ever since I was little, my dad’s been a coach. It’s been really cool to win an award like that, especially of that magnitude,” said Justin Zeerip, who credited brother Collin as well as Craig Christensen and their entire Whitehall coaching staff. “It was really just an honor to win that, especially winning in the same year. That’s probably pretty rare – hasn’t happened very often.”
Not only can the Zeerips coach wrestling at a high level, but they’ve done it as athletes. All three of the Zeerip brothers – Justin, Brandon and Collin – enjoyed great success at Hesperia before going on to compete at University of Michigan. Craig Zeerip, a Fremont alumnus, wrestled at Ohio State.
Justin Zeerip was an eye-popping 260-0 in his four years at Hesperia (2003-07). He still holds a Michigan High School Athletic Association records for career victories and pins (203), and he appears in the record book in several other places. Like his brothers, he was his graduating class’ valedictorian at Hesperia.
At U-M, he posted a 100-68 career record and qualified for the NCAAs four times.
“Justin and I probably talk every day on the phone about wrestling, and we’re obviously best friends. Just awesome to see the recognition they got for the hard work they put in,” Collin Zeerip said.
When you’re talking about Whitehall wrestling, however, you can’t mention Justin Zeerip without Collin. They’ve elevated a Vikings program that was already very strong to begin, thanks in large part to predecessors Cliff Sandee, Rick Champion & Co.
Whitehall has high goals again this season under the fourth-year co-coaches. The Vikings are ranked No. 4 in Division 2 and opened the season Wednesday in resounding fashion with runaway victories over Comstock Park (75-3) and Kent City (58-18) at the Kent City quad.
Craig Zeerip said his sons’ enthusiasm for the sport and maturity help set them apart.
“I mean, they’re really energetic coaches, they really teach kids to be offensive and Craig Christensen’s right in there. Those guys gave everything they have in the state finals, and they’ll be really good again this year and for years to come. I think they’re just doing it the right way. They care about their wrestlers,” he said.
“They both wrestled at Michigan and the technique they have is phenomenal. Through high school, with the success that they had, I think they had a good plan to start there but they’ve really added a lot with all the experience that they have.”
The Vikings feature a deep and talented senior group this season as well as some promising newcomers. Jenkins, a U-M signee, assembled a historically dominant season as a junior, when he finished 39-0 with 35 pins en route to seizing the 215-pound state title. He set a state record for shortest time on the mat in the tournament, needing only 449 seconds in his 10 total matches.
Jenkins is wrestling heavyweight this season. He injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery over the summer, but he’s back in action and got off to a dominant start Wednesday with two pins. At the moment, he’s 132-11 in his Whitehall career with 103 pins.
Senior Max Brown joined Jenkins as a state champion last season at 140 pounds, and he also reached the 100-win club. He credits the Zeerip brothers for helping to push the Vikings to another level.
“Every year they just bring new surprises. They’re just great guys and they push us every day on the mat,” Brown said. “They’re doing an awesome job – they brought us to the finals last year – and they just bring a mentality to practice that we need to get to the next level.”
Justin Zeerip spent the last nine years teaching at Hesperia, but now he’s at Whitehall Middle School.
During Tuesday’s practice, the Vikings were raring to go. They began practice with a bit of a ritual: Playing a competitive game of handball. Justin Zeerip said he and his U-M teammates played handball before practice as a way to loosen up and to strengthen team bonding and get the competitive juices flowing.
“I think kids are ready to go. They’ve been working really hard in practice, looking good. I’m just excited for them to get out and start competing,” he said.
“The first (few) weeks of the season can be hard sometimes because you’re just wrestling the same guys every day for three weeks straight. It’s just nice to be able to go out and compete against other people as well and just see new styles. Everyone loves to compete, so I think it’s just going to be fun to get in the groove.”
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