By Nate Thompson
GRAND HAVEN – In preparation for his team’s most important weekend of its season, Grand Haven wrestling coach James Richardson did something on Monday he admittedly has never done before.
He gave his Buccaneer grapplers a day off.
“They needed it,” said Richardson, whose Grand Haven squad will compete in the Division 1 state wrestling team quarterfinals on Friday, with a chance to advance to the semifinals on Saturday, and perhaps the finals later the same day.
“I could tell (the previous week) that they were worn down both mentally and physically. And as a tribute to the kids, they came back (Tuesday) and had their best practice we’ve had all year.
“It’s a lot to ask to keep that same focus and that same drive for four months.”
The Grand Haven wrestling team has had one of the finest seasons in Richardson’s 17 years as coach.
The Bucs won a second straight O-K Red Conference title this winter with a perfect record. In recent weeks they won a Division 1 district title and regional championship.
Their overall dual meet record is a sparkling 26-3.
Now the Bucs are prepared to make their move for state glory this weekend at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena. It’s the second time in program history that Grand Haven has advanced to the Elite Eight, with the first coming in 2012.
The Bucs will have a tough challenge in Friday’s quarterfinals, facing off against undefeated and No. 2-ranked New Baltimore Anchor Bay at 3:15 p.m.
“I don’t know how much I’ll take from it, but from talking with (Anchor Bay’s) coach, he said this is the best team they’ve ever had.” Richardson said. “It’s a very strong program.”
If they win on Friday, the Buccaneers will advance to the semifinals on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. against the winner of the Hartland-Monroe quarterfinal.
A victory in the semifinals would put the Bucs in the 4 p.m. state final match.
Leading Grand Haven into the weekend will be six standouts who have qualified for the individual state finals March 5-7 in Auburn Hills: senior Camden Bertucci at 125 pounds; senior Antonio Reyes at 135; senior Evan Johnson at 140; senior Aaron Cummings at 160; senior Nick Mulcahy at 189; and senior Chase VanHoef at heavyweight.
Only Bertucci competed in Grand Haven’s last trip to the quarterfinals, but Richardson said four other current seniors dressed for the tough loss to Brighton.
Richardson said the team’s mindset heading into the quarterfinals this year, compared to three years ago, is vastly different.
“We have different expectations this time around,” said Richardson, whose team is seeded seventh in the eight-team bracket.
“When you’re new to that type of environment, it’s hard to gauge how to act because it’s such a learning curve. There are a number of things now that these kids are much better at, as far as dealing with the pressure and expectations.”
Richardson didn’t pinpoint any key weight classes that the Bucs will need to win against Anchor Bay, but said the team’s overall experience could pay dividends.
Seven of Grand Haven’s 14 weight classes feature senior wrestlers, led by Bertucci, who is undfeated this season at 39-0.
“Our lineup hasn’t changed much all season long,” Richardson said. “We are who we are. I feel we’re an unbelievably tough team to beat when our boys wrestle their style and up to their potential.”