The Whitehall Sports Hall of Fame banquet is always a highlight of the school’s athletic calendar, and this Saturday’s version will welcome a new class of impressive athletes into the Hall.
This year’s inductees will be Bruce Baxter, Deb Johnson-Zylstra, Dan Kozera, Ryan Fisher, Pam Sheesley, and Josh Robart.
Baxter coached football at Whitehall for nearly three decades and taught at the school for nearly four. During his time, he racked up more than his share of honors, including West Michigan Conference Coach of the Year, regional Coach of the Year, and an induction into the state coaches association Hall of Fame in 2004.
Baxter was head coach at Whitehall for 15 seasons, from 1989-2003, the longest tenure in school history. He compiled an 85-54 record and winning four WMC titles, earning three bids to the state playoffs in the process. During his time, he coached the 1998 Vikings to the only unbeaten and untied regular season in school history, including two thrilling one-point wins over Ravenna and Fremont.
Johnson-Zylstra had a decorated career on the playing fields at Whitehall before graduating in 1977. She was a four-year varsity letterwinner in girls basketball, her standout sport. She scored nearly 1,000 points in her career, averaging 24 points per game. In 1975, her junior year, Johnson-Zylstra broke the school record at the time with 30 points in a game, and later in the season broke it again with a 32-point evening. She earned all-area honors in her senior year and was named all-state honorable mention that season.
Johnson-Zylstra also played on the boys tennis team all four of her high school seasons, lettering three times. Although the school started a girls tennis team in her junior year, it was played in the fall at the time, and she continued to play on the boys team in the spring. She also was a three-year letterwinner on the gymnastics team and was a member of the National Honor Society.
After high school, Deb played tennis at Central Michigan University before transferring to Michigan State as a sophomore, becoming a registered nurse for six years, and subsequently raising two children and farming for over 30 years.
Kozera, known as “Big Dan” in his time at Whitehall for his 6-4 height, graduated in 1958 after a standout career in football, basketball and baseball. Kozera was a 10-time varsity letterwinner, playing baseball all four seasons. He was an all-WMC player as a senior. In football, he played end on both sides of the ball and did it well, earning three varsity letters and twice being named all-WMC. On the hardwood, Kozera averaged over 10 points a game in a sterling career and was the team’s lone all-WMC pick as a senior. Outside of school, he also won three state championships playing for a Masonic Temple team. He did all of this while serving in various executive roles on the student council (including as president as a senior), National Honor Society, and the Varsity Club. He was voted the most all-around member of his senior class.
Kozera moved on to play baseball at Kalamazoo College for four years, where his career highlight was a grand slam home run against Olivet. He also played football for a year at the school. He went on to become a successful lawyer, even once being voted the best in the profession in the country by the American Bar Association. Kozera has been married for 53 years and has two sons and two granddaughters.
Ryan Fisher starred in two sports for Whitehall, football and wrestling. He missed his freshman year here because his father was transferred to Texas for work, but the family returned after Fisher’s freshman year. That worked out to the Vikings’ benefit, as Fisher would ultimately be named all-state in both of his sports in his senior year of 1983-84.
Fisher played for the 1983 football team that went 8-1 and was one of the finest in school history. He starred at linebacker, where he was named all-state, and at tight end. Fisher still recalls the three touchdowns called back by Viking penalties in their lone loss of the season, to Spring Lake.
On the mat, Fisher wrestled in the 167-pound weight class along with most of the football team. His senior year, the Vikings took second place in the state under then-coach Dan Brink.
Off the playing field, Fisher was a National Merit Scholar and was president of the National Honor Society. After high school, he played football at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was named team most valuable player as a sophomore. However, he transferred to Western Michigan after that to earn his engineering degree. He now owns Perceptive Controls, a factory automation company based in Plainwell, and enjoys time with his four children, all of whom were and are just as involved in sports and other activities as Fisher himself was.
Pam Sheesley, class of 1982, was a four-year athlete in girls basketball and played a season of volleyball, but the track was the site of her top performances. Sheesley was the anchor runner on two state champion sprint relay teams in 1981 and also placed third that year in the 220-yard dash. The year before, she had helped the 880-yard relay team take second place. When she graduated, Sheesley held the school record in all three sprints as well as being part of record-holders in the two sprint relays. She was named Outstanding Female Athlete in her graduating class and served as class treasurer all four years of high school, in addition to being in the National Honor Society. She graduated sixth in her class.
After high school, Sheesley ran track at Ferris State, where she set a school record for the indoor team in the 60-yard dash. She went on to get a degree in nuclear medicine and worked in nuclear cardiology for over 30 years. She and husband David Zawadzki have two children, both of whom played sports and graduated college.
Josh Robart graduated in 1999, but not before dominating in three sports at Whitehall — football, wrestling and baseball (he also played soccer). Robart was a 100-win wrestler at Whitehall and was state runner-up in 1998, as well as being all-state the season before. Robart also helped the baseball team reach the state finals that same year, posting a 10-1 record on the mound and batting .458 with 16 home runs. He had two RBI in the state championship game. To this day, Robart ranks 15th in the state record books with 32 dingers in his career. In football, Robart was a member of the 9-0 team in 1998, rushing for over 700 yards.
After graduation, Robart played baseball on scholarship at Grand Valley State and earned his degree. He still lives in Whitehall with his wife and daughter, working as a corrections officer.