But did Richardson ever have doubts his squad could make a comeback?
“There was concern, but I believe in our boys,” the veteran Buccaneers’ coach said. “I felt like we were still OK, and we’d be fine as long as we stayed the course.”
The Bucs backed up Richardson’s confidence in a big way, coming back from an 18-4 deficit to beat arch-rival Rockford in the semifinals, then erased a 26-9 score against Caledonia in the finals to claim a long-awaited prize for the program — a first-ever regional championship.
“This is just the start,” said freshman Camden Bertucci, whose critical pin in the final match against Caledonia at 103 pounds secured the Bucs’ 34-29 win. “There are going to be much bigger things coming ahead for this team.”
Bertucci is referring to the MHSAA state finals in Battle Creek, where the Bucs will be headed on Feb. 24-25. The pairings will be determined on Sunday. The quarterfinal round takes place Feb. 24, followed by the semifinals and finals on Feb. 25.
“This is a huge accomplishment,” said senior Dakota Smith, who scored two pressure-packed wins at 189 pounds. “It’s something everyone wanted so badly. But we’ve got to celebrate it tonight and then put it behind us. We’ve got (individual) regionals on Saturday and then the (team) finals.”
Smith, who competed in just five matches this season prior to the individual district tournament last weekend due to a serious elbow injury, showed he wasn’t the slightest bit rusty Wednesday. His 9-6 decision against Rockford gave the Bucs a 33-24 lead with two matches remaining, and Grand Haven refused to cough up the advantage against their longtime nemesis. Despite a Bucs’ loss at 215 pounds, heavyweight Ian Radde sealed the deal with a pin to close out the 39-27 victory.
“He’s a senior and he came up big tonight for us,” Richardson said of his imposing heavyweight. “He wrestled really smart. He was under control, he was patient and took control when the opportunity presented itself.”
Rockford took advantage of its strength in the lower weight classes to put the Bucs in an early hole. Bertucci opened with a major decision, but the Rams followed with three straight pins.
But the tide began to turn at 135 following Allen Torres’ major decision, Garrett Young’s 9-7 win at 140, and a pin by Abe Westerman at 145.
“Abe Westerman had a tremendous evening for us,” Richardson said. “Had he not cut weight down to 145, which is a tribute to his hard work and dedication, we wouldn’t be going to Battle Creek.”
Dakota Juarez scored a 9-2 decision at 160 and Connor Moynihan’s pin at 171 put the Bucs ahead by six at 30-24.
The finals against the Flying Scots started at 112 pounds, where the Bucs voided. Grand Haven could muster just two wins through the opening eight weight classes — a void at 140 with Allen Torres, and a 12-6 decision in favor of Josh Juchartz at 125.
But the Bucs quickly caught up thanks to Juarez’s major decision and Moynihan’s second pin of the evening.
One of the most exciting matches of the match was Smith’s showdown with the Flying Scot’s Kyle Schutt at 189. The match was delayed several times due to a bandage on a cut above Schutt’s eye slipping free, but the ending was worth the wait.
The duo were tied at 6-6 in the third period with 8.6 seconds remaining. Smith scored the go-ahead point on a lightening-quick escape, and then had the frame of mind to shove Schutt out of bounds and run back to the middle of the mat to drain more time off the clock. Schutt’s last-gasp shot at Smith’s shins for a takedown attempt nearly produced, but it was cut short by the buzzer.
Smith said the Bucs simulate those pressure-packed moments in practice often.
“We’re put in those positions every day at practice,” he said. “We’ve got 10 seconds to get out, 10 seconds to score, 10 seconds to win.“
“(Dakota) turned to me and said ‘This is just one more go in the (wrestling) room,” Richardson said. “When you put yourself in a pressure situation and imagine the match, it pays off. So when you get there, it’s familiar territory. That’s exactly what he did.”
Smith’s victory allowed the Bucs to creep to within four points of Caledonia at 26-22 and set the stage for their two huge closing pins — by the Bucs’ biggest and smallest wrestlers, Radde and Bertucci.
“I’d say it was the biggest (pin) of my career,” Radde said, who heard cheers of ‘Ian! Ian!’ by more than 40 Grand Haven Middle School wrestlers in attendance.
“When I got up, I was so happy, because I knew I put our team in a good spot.”
And Betucci — a freshman who showcased nerves of steel in a do-or-die situation — supplied the exclamation point to the Bucs’ groundbreaking evening with his first-period pin.
Smith said the victory was a tribute to Richardson, who has won 13 district titles but never a regional crown until Wednesday. Richardson began coaching at Grand Haven in 1999.
“With coach, I love him so much and it’s a great feeling that we won this for him,” Smith said. “The whole team did it for him.”
Richardson said a mid-season turnaround from his squad sparked their surge to greatness.
“I’ve never coached a group that has put more time in making themselves better,” he said. “But we got beat back in December and we looked pretty sporadic as a team for a long time. I went back to the kids and said these things need to be changed or we won’t achieve our goals. And these boys, I give them 100 percent credit. They worked awfully hard to get to this point.”