Whitehall Wrestling remains among state’s elite with a runner-up finish

Gavin Craner after winning his state final match for Whitehall.

By Nate Thompson

Given several days after the fact to reflect on what happened and what could have been at the Division 3 team wrestling state finals at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo, both coaches and student-athletes on the Whitehall wrestling team described the feelings as bittersweet.

From a competitive angle, it was extremely gut-wrenching to come up one victory short of a state championship on Feb. 24, but at the same time, losing to a program of the caliber of Dundee, which was ranked in the top 3 in the state in all divisions, shouldn’t diminish what Whitehall accomplished this season, nor the fact they continue to be one of the most successful programs in West Michigan.

It’s just unfortunate that a really good Vikings squad ran into a juggernaut Vikings team.  

The Dundee Vikings have won seven consecutive team state championships, have advanced to the state title match every year since 2013 and captured the title in 10 of those 12 seasons.

It’s no surprise that they’re also recognized nationally as one of the best high school programs.

“It was bittersweet,” said Whitehall senior Ryne Christensen, who competed at both 150 and 138 pounds this season and was one of 11 Vikings who advanced to the individual state finals at Ford Field in Detroit. “It’s weird that it’s all over now. Obviously, it’s tough to come up short, but you always want to test yourself against the best. We knew going up against (Dundee) was going to be kind of insane, with how good they are, but we battled. It was nice to see where we stood as a team and how far we’ve come.”

Whitehall sixth-year head coach Justin Zeerip echoed Christensen’s feelings, saying he was proud of the way his squad didn’t back down against Dundee, eventually falling by a 49-20 final.
“Making the state finals is our goal every year, and I’m proud of the kids for their effort all season long,” Zeerip said. “We were closer against (Dundee) this year than the last. You look at their team and they had nine guys in (individual) state finals matches and had six state champs. That’s just a tough team to defeat in a dual match. But our kids showed a lot of fight and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Zeerip highlighted tremendous growth from his squad from the early season until late February, highlighting a match on Dec. 24 against fellow state power Clinton, when Whitehall won by a single point, 36-35. The two met again in the state semifinals, where the Vikings triumphed much more comfortably, 44-24.  A key, Zeerip said, were pins by Cody Manzo at 106 pounds, and Kolton Weiler at 113 pounds, who both suffered losses via pin in the December dual.

“That’s a 12-point swing right there,” Zeerip said.

Whitehall also got a late-season boost in their team quarterfinal win over Gladstone with the return of senior Wyatt Jenkins, at 190 pounds, who scored a pin in the Vikings’ 52-18 victory. Jenkins suffered a broken neck during a football camp in July.

“(Wyatt’s return) was huge for the team,” said Zeerip. “He was all-state last year, and with him able to come back and compete, it was a huge boost to everyone, both physically and mentally. All the kids respect him not only for how talented he is, but just the way he works and leads.

“We thought there was a chance he’d be able to come back,” Zeerip added. “He was finally cleared by his doctor a week before the team state tournament.”

A week after the loss to Dundee, the Vikings swarmed Ford Field for the individual state finals and saw 175-pound junior Gavin Craner complete his dream season with a state title. Craner, who transferred to Whitehall this season after previously attending Belding High School, was simply dominant all winter, as Zeerip said he went undefeated at 58-0, and even more impressive, did not allow a single takedown all year. At Ford Field, Craner had two victories by major decision, and two by pin.

At 150 pounds, Whitehall senior Darnell Mack settled for a third-place finish, but lost by the tightest of margins in the semifinals against Dundee’s Trey Parker, with the match being decided by ultimate tiebreaker rules and Parker scoring a 3-2 decision.

Other all-state finishers for Whitehall were senior Nolan Taranko at 126 pounds in sixth place; 113-pounder Kolton Weiler at eighth; and senior heavyweight Jason Smith at eighth. Zeerip said he was astounded at how Smith fared this season, considering it was his first year of wrestling at the high school level.

Zeerip said Whitehall has been able to maintain its excellence within its program year after year due to a number of factors. Two of the biggest are the great coaches within the program, from the youth program to the middle school team, to longtime assistant Craig Christensen, who helped ease the transition when Zeerip took over for another successful Vikings coach six years ago, Cliff Sandee.

But Zeerip said he’s also blessed to have so many student-athletes dedicate themselves to getting better with old fashioned hard work.

“It helps that we have so many kids who put in a lot of work in the off-season, going to camps or doing summer workouts. I tip my hat to the kids. We can tell them what to do, but it’s the kids that have to go out and do it. They have to want it. We tell them to strive to be the best they can in everything; from school to any sport they compete in.”

It also helps that success can often breed future success.  Ryne Christensen fondly recalls being let down on the floor during the individual state finals when he was a middle schooler.

“It was sweet and I remember thinking that I one day wanted to be there,” he said.

Four years later, he was there, although he was handed a pair of tough losses at 138 pounds to end his career. But he was proud to have his dad, coach and mentor, Craig Christensen, always by his side.

“With me, Nolan (Taranko), Darnell, really all of the upperclassmen, I think we left the program in a great place,” he said. “We left behind a good legacy and hopefully these younger kids have a path to even more success.”

And yes, maybe even a victory over Dundee in the future.

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