MUSKEGON — One of the toughest mental tests for a football team is bouncing back from a heartbreaking loss. While Whitehall didn't ace that test Friday night, the Vikings certainly did more than enough to pass.
A third-quarter spurt of three touchdowns in just over five minutes broke open a close game, and the Vikes pulled away from Oakridge for a 32-18 win that should give Whitehall a home playoff game next Friday. (The MHSAA will announce the playoff matchups on its website Sunday; because everyone is in the playoffs, the traditional selection show on Fox Sports Detroit will not occur.)
It was the first time Whitehall (5-1, 5-1 West Michigan Conference) had beaten Oakridge on the road since 1998.
"That's as well-coached of a football team, with as much tradition, as much of a standard of excellence, as any program in the state of Michigan," Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon said. "So if you think you're going to come in here and take a win, that they're going to give it to you, it's just not going to happen. If you beat them, you have to earn it."
The Eagles certainly didn't make things easy early on, taking advantage of a couple of Whitehall miscues - a fumbled punt snap and a botched handoff that Oakridge recovered - to take two first-half leads at 3-0 and then 10-6. However, to its credit, Whitehall responded to both early scores with dynamic touchdown drives, the second of which was sparked by a 60-yard pass up the seam from Andrew Durbin to Red Watson. Alec Pruett scored both touchdowns. Because of those drives, Whitehall led 12-10 at the half despite some sloppy play.
Challenged by the coaches to clean things up in the second half, the Vikings responded. Whitehall took the kickoff and powered down the field for another impressive touchdown drive, with Pruett again scoring, this one from 19 yards out.
"I thought the first drive out, where we were able to march down, was really important and really big for us," Sigmon said.
The Viking defense then forced a three-and-out, got good field position, and scored again, cashing in a fourth-and-5 with a nice pass from Durbin to Nate Bolley for a 23-yard score. Almost immediately afterward, Jacob Haynes scored on an interception, and all of a sudden a tight game was 32-10 in Whitehall's favor.
The Vikings didn't score again, but held Oakridge down enough that they didn't need to. Haynes had a spectacular defensive game, with eight tackles, seven of them solo stops, five tackles for a loss, two sacks, and the pick-six.
Durbin was his usual steady self, running for 109 yards and passing for 103. Pruett added 76 rushing yards.
Sigmon said the Viking offense was buoyed by what it was able to do the previous week against Montague and emphasized using the entire field more often.
"As frustrating as last week was, we also knew there were a lot of good things that came out of it," Sigmon said. "We wanted to build off of that and come out with a win off of it. That was a really big deal to us."
The Vikings will enter the postseason having played a juggernaut Montague team to a near-standstill and handily beating everybody else they've played. It's enough to make a hungry squad, coming off an injury-plagued 3-6 season in 2019, believe much bigger things are in store this fall — especially if the Vikings can play cleanly for 48 minutes.
"We've played excellent defense all year long," Sigmon said. "At times our offense has looked really dynamic. At other times we've shot ourselves in the foot. My thought process is, if we can keep a clean game, we do have a high ceiling, and why not start reaching for the stars?"