By Nate Thompson
WHITEHALL – In just a brief highlight video, eyes were surely widened with each impressive dunk thrown down by Whitehall senior Dayton Cole.
In the Vikings’ season-opening victory over rival Montague on Feb. 11, Cole, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound center, had four easy-effort slams, including a thunderous two-hander on a fast break, when he skied high in the paint, brought the ball behind his head and pounded it home.
It’s really unfortunate that COVID-19 has limited the number of spectators at high school basketball games this season, because that slam would have set off a tizzy amongst fans at Whitehall High School. It was two of Cole’s 28 points in the 75-47 blowout victory.
The video was produced by LocalSportsJournal.com, and Whitehall varsity head coach Nate Aardema said it definitely drew some attention, including some interest from a prominent college coach in a different sport.
“I actually got a call from (Ferris State University football coach) Tony Annese,” Aardema said. “I was on his staff when he coached (basketball) here at Whitehall. He said, ‘Where did this Dayton Cole kid come from and why isn’t he playing football?’”
There’s a good chance that Annese has passed the clip on to Ferris State’s basketball coach, Andy Bronkema, and in a time of limited recruiting due to the pandemic, the clip may be going viral amongst college coaches in the state.
And to answer Annese’s question, Cole said he hasn’t played football since the eighth grade.
“I got too big, and they moved me to the line,” he said.. “I didn’t like that.”
Instead of becoming a dynamite red-zone target as a jumbo receiver or tight end for the Vikings’ football team, Cole has focused solely on basketball.
Aardema said he’s seen tremendous gains in Cole’s overall skill set. Despite averaging 14 points and nearly 7-8 rebounds a game a year ago, and earning honorable mention All-State honors with the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan, Aardema said Cole’s game was pretty “one dimensional.”
“He’d post up on the block and get his points by overpowering kids or cleaning up offensive rebounds,” he said. “Still, he had a really good year. He shot nearly 65 percent from the floor, which is one of the better marks in the last 25 years here.”
Cole experienced a big growth spurt before his junior year, but to improve his agility and explosiveness on the court, he spent hours in the weight room last summer, and his hard work on the squat rack, and other core-body training, has helped increase his vertical leap to 40 inches.
And with COVID putting a damper on AAU and other summer leagues, Cole instead worked on his game in his own neighborhood, shooting on a daily basis at the home court of Whitehall assistant coach Matt Schultz.
“Usually I’d just shoot on my own or we’d get some pickup games going,” Cole said. “Nothing serious. But I worked all summer.”
“I was talking about this with our staff the other day at just how far he’s come,” Aardema added about Cole. “There was a time just a couple years ago when we’d have the kids make 10 shots from the baseline before they were done with practice. And Dayton couldn’t do it. I’d let him go because he’d get frustrated.”
Now, Cole has expanded his shooting range to the 3-point line, and nailed the first triple of his varsity career last week in a tight loss against Reeths-Puffer. Although Cole has lobbied with his coach to give him more of a green light to fire from distance, Aardema said Cole is still at his best powering for points in the paint, filling the lane on the fast break, and adding more to his dunk total.
That’s OK with Cole.
“I only had three dunks all of last season,” he said. “The first time I did it in a game was last year. It was exhilarating.”
Cole doesn’t have to be a one-man show for the Vikings. Aardema said the team returns nine players from a year ago, including fellow three-year varsity players Andrew Durbin and Addison Bluhm.
That depth should be invaluable in a condensed 16-game season that will feature many 3-game-a-week slates. Whitehall could be an early favorite to snap its Class B district title drought, with its last championship coming in 2007. The Vikings are currently 2-1, with their lone loss coming to the Rockets.
“The best thing about this team is we’re all working together,” Cole said. “We’re all close because we all grew up together. I definitely want to win districts. I’m not even sure when the last time we won it was. For individual goals, I’m hoping to get some (Division 1) offers. That would show my hard work would be rewarded.”