By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – The Reeths-Puffer wrestling team was in trouble again, and it looked like the Rockets might have run out of luck.

Marco Moore wraps Reeths-Puffer’s Kaden Edwards. Photo/Leo Valdez

Whitehall led R-P 30-28 in the semifinal round of the Division 2 district tournament at Reeths-Puffer High School. And Whitehall’s Jacob Haynes led Reeths-Puffer’s Caleb McNeil 6-4 after two periods in the 160-pound bout, which was the final match.

If Haynes had managed to hold the lead for two more minutes, his team would have won.

But McNeil refused to give up. He scored two points with 1:08 left to tie the score at 6-6. Then he somehow managed to pin Haynes with 31 seconds remaining, giving Reeths-Puffer six points on the scoreboard and a dramatic 34-30 victory in a much-anticipated matchup between the two best teams in the area.

The Rockets went on to face Muskegon in the championship match and waltzed to a 77-0 victory, clinching its sixth consecutive Division 2 district title and a berth in regionals next week.

“It was a very stressful situation, but we’ve been told all season that pressure is a privilege,” said McNeil, a junior. “I knew it was an important match, for myself and the team.

“I really didn’t know I got the pin until a couple of seconds after it happened. When it finally settled in, I was really excited. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long while.”

The showdown between the Rockets and the Vikings was tragic in a way, because both have long histories of winning district championships.

Noah McKinnen takes down Whitehall’s Matt Goodrich. Photo/Leo Valdez

Reeths-Puffer had won five consecutive Division 2 district titles. Whitehall had won at least that many in a row in Division 3 (their coach was not sure when asked on Wednesday), and had advanced to the state semifinals three times in the past four years.

But Whitehall moved up to Division 2 this season, setting up a winner-take-all scenario with the Rockets that had to end one team’s district domination.

And as luck would have it, the two teams drew each other in the first round of districts, with Fruitport and Muskegon facing off in the other semifinal. The Big Reds beat the Trojans 42-18 in that match.

The featured match lived up to its advance billing. Several spectators called it the most exciting high school dual match they ever witnessed.

Whitehall jumped out to an early 12-0 lead when Ira Jenkins won by forfeit at 171 pounds, and Kayleb Venema won by pin at 189 pounds.

Things seemed to be getting even worse for Reeths-Puffer in the 215-pound match, because Whitehall’s Jarrean Sargeant had a 7-0 lead over R-P’s Colby Stephenson with only 29 seconds left. But Stephenson pulled it together and got a pin, making the score 12-6.

R-P’s Hunter McCall then pinned Whitehall’s Hayden Brown in the 285-pound match, tying the score 12-12, and Greg Maynard (103 pounds) followed with an exciting 6-4 win over Dylan Osborn to put the Rockets up 15-12.

Reeths-Puffer’s James Rozckci leverages the top. Photo/Leo Valdez

Whitehall regained the lead 18-15 when Aiden Weiler got a pin at 112 pounds. R-P’s Jacob Blawat turned in a 17-7 major decision victory at 119 pounds, and his teammate Noah McKinnon pulled out a 4-2 win at 125, putting the Rockets up 22-18.

The Vikings then recorded three straight wins, with a pin by Riley Buys at 130 pounds, an overtime win by Max Brown at 135, and a 4-3 victory by Marco Moore at 140, to take a 30-22 lead with three matches left.

But the Rockets swept all three to steal the win.

It started when Thade Rodosa beat Nick Blanchard 9-3 at 145 pounds, making the score 30-25. James Rozycki gutted out a tough 3-1 win over Chris Dowdell at 152 points, pulling the Rockets within two points, 30-28.

Then McNeil made his magical comeback in the final match of the night, getting the late pin that put Reeths-Puffer over the top and sent the big crowd into a frenzy.

“It went back and forth – it was one of the most exciting matches I’ve seen in a long time,” said Reeths-Puffer Coach Matt Brink. “It was just a huge team effort. Everybody came together and did an unbelievable job.

“We feel this is the best team we’ve had at Reeths-Puffer, at least since I’ve been the coach, and maybe ever, and it just worked out for us today.”

The dramatic victory validated the Rockets’ effort to overtake Whitehall as the area’s top wrestling squad this season. The Vikings had won 13 consecutive titles in the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Wrestling Tournament, the county’s top event, before the Rockets finally beat them out and won the tournament in January.

Following up with a victory over Whitehall in districts, as close as it was, was icing on the cake for the Rockets.

“We all thought about how it would go, strategized about who would wrestle who, but none of the scenarios we imagined were what happened,” Brink said. “It boiled down to the last three kids having to win, and they did.

“This is our year. Whitehall has been a powerhouse for years, and to take them down at city and in the district tournament, I just can’t say enough about how proud I am of this team.”