Inside the wrestling room at Grand Haven High School, past accomplishments are enshrined on the Buccaneers’ Wall of Fame, which features state champions, state medalists and All-State performers.
For five Grand Haven wrestlers — Drake Morley, Caleb Braley, Daniel Guillen, Collin Monsma and Bryan Batten — the goal at this week’s Division 1 individual state finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills is to add their name to this prestigious concrete wall inside their practice facility.
“The guys on this team just put in the time, really,” said Grand Haven head coach Vince Gervais. “We have three seniors and two juniors going this year. All of these guys have put in a lot of time in the offseason, so this is a testament to what they’ve been able to do.
“This is more on them than me. They were the ones that had to work to get to this point, and they are the ones who have earned this. The expectations are pretty high here. Grand Haven has a tradition of getting guys to the state finals every year, so my gut tells me that all of them were expecting to get there this year, too. The rest was them putting in the hours.”
Last year, then-senior Juan Becerra made a surprising run through districts and regionals to qualify for the state tournament. This year, it appears there was a similar surprise with Juan’s former wrestling partner.
“Collin Monsma really started to gain confidence toward the middle of the season,” Gervais added. “I knew he could get through (to the state tournament), but I think he didn’t start to think that way until January. That’s fun to see as a coach, when guys start to believe in themselves and believe that they belong with the best wrestlers in the state.
“He had a pretty good round robin with Jared (Lancaster) and Juan last year in practice. He took some lumps along the way, but he eventually became competitive toward the end of last season. He’s just a good athlete who works hard, and he’s also been fortunate to have some great workout partners.”
Senior Drake Morley (26-4) and junior Daniel Guillen (37-4) were less of a surprise for the Grand Haven grapplers. Both wrestlers have been state ranked in their respective weight classes all season and have backed up that ranking with a high level of play.
“I knew both of those guys were going to do well this year,” Gervais added. “Daniel got in 30 matches over the offseason going to two wrestling camps. He’s done a ton of wrestling since his youth days. He was in an incredibly tough region, and he was good enough to make it through. I know he was hoping to make it last year, but this year, he was even more determined to get there.
“Drake has been consistent all season. He’s gone up to the 215-pound weight class this year and really thrived. I know he was motivated to make it through this year, after he got injured in the last match of the regional. If he had won that match, he would have made it last year. I’m happy to see him make it this year, and I think he has a chance to do pretty well in his bracket.”
Despite his high-seeding and high praise from prep wrestling websites, Guillen is more worried about what he thinks of himself when the competition gets rolling this afternoon in Auburn Hills.
“I haven’t really paid a ton of attention to that,” he said of the state rankings. “The seeding is mostly opinions, and that doesn’t really show you who you are as a wrestler, so I try not to look at that kind of stuff. I’m more concerned with what my mindset is heading into the match, and whether I feel like I am ready to go.”
A back injury caused Guillen to work his way back into form toward the end of the season, but he quickly realized he belonged.
“I was wrestling pretty well, and then I hurt my back midway through the season, and I started doubting myself,” he admitted. “Once I got into the regional tournament, I had a really strong opening match, and I knew after that match that I was going to have a good postseason. I’m pretty satisfied with how everything played out this season.
“My goal now is to finish on the podium this weekend and put my name on the wall.”
Senior Bryan Batten has proved to be one of the more resilient wrestlers on the team. He rejoined the team midway through the season, and battled through one of the more impressive gauntlets of a schedule that a wrestler could put themselves through.
“He’s another kid that I knew had the ability to make it to the state tournament, but you weren’t sure if he believed that,” Gervais added. “He came back out in January and wrestled one of the toughest schedules you could ask for, so his record isn’t sparkling. At the same time, he’s gone up against a ton of state qualifiers from last year and lost three times to Kam Bush (36-1), who is a three-time state champion, so he belongs in that conversation with the best of the best.
“He was the sixth seed in districts and took second, and then finished third at regionals. We always talk about wrestling above your seed, and he took that to heart this postseason. He’s been wrestling really smart and really aggressive these past two weekends, and it’s been fun to see him continue to advance.”
BRALEY GOES BACK
Senior Caleb Braley (33-10) is the only Buccaneer grappler who has experienced the bright lights of the Palace, and Gervais isn’t at all surprised to see him make the trip back.
“Caleb is the only returning state qualifier from last year, so he knows the grind of it,” he added. “He knows what it takes to get through. I still wish he would have had a little better regional, but he still wrestled well enough to get through and get back.”
Braley has been motivated internally by what transpired at last year’s state tournament and hopes to make up for it in his final competition as a high school wrestler.
“I was expecting to make it back this year,” he said. “I’m hoping to make the podium this time around. I went two (matches) and out last year, so it wasn’t the best showing. But, things happen, and you have to try and learn from it.
“I was never really worried about not making it. My biggest worry has been, once I make it there, not to get as awestruck as I was last year. The Grand March (Assembly) is something you’ll never forget. Coach Gervais said he still looks back on the time he was a part of it, and it’s just an amazing thing to be a part of.
“I want to pick up where I left off, and hopefully get my revenge on going two and out last year.”
While he is relatively new to wrestling, Braley is also motivated to leave his mark on the program by stamping his name on the wall once he hangs up his singlet.
“That’s something I’ve wanted since I stepped in here four years ago,” Braley said. “I didn’t wrestle until I walked into this room my freshmen year, so that would be quite the accomplishment if I’m able to add my name to the wall.”
A lot goes into a successful wrestling program. For Braley, the biggest difference maker has been the workout partners who have pushed him to get better every single day at the practice mats.
“The coaches are amazing here, but mostly, the practice partners are what have helped me the most,” he said. “If you don’t have good competition to practice with, you don’t get better. Daniel always pushes me at practice. I like wrestling against him, because he makes me think and go. Cody is the same way.
“The people in this room have shaped me into the wrestler I am today.”
As competitive and physically grinding as practices can be leading up to the event, Gervais views his biggest battle as affecting what’s going on between the ears of his wrestlers.
“My goal is to make sure all of these guys realize that they can compete with anyone they step on the mat with,” he said. “I don’t want them to just be content with making it there. It’s so much more mental than physical.
“There’s some crazy stuff that happens at the state tournament, so anyone is beatable and every wrestler there is talented. That’s the fun part about it. Whoever is the most ready and most prepared usually wrestles the best.”
Improving on the number of state qualifiers every season is a goal for Gervais, and this year’s squad have helped put Grand Haven in thick of the O-K Red Conference, which features plenty of blue-blood programs.
“It’s a step forward for us as a program,” he added. “To get five through is quite an accomplishment, that’s two more than last year, and hopefully we can keep building on that number. We’re hoping to have two returning state qualifiers next year, plus a few more kids.
“We’ve had quite a few guys showing up to practice these past few weeks that didn’t have to be here, but want to be here. They want to help their teammates by being wrestling partners. If you want to be wrestling in March, you have to be practicing in February, so the all the guys in the program got the message, and they are coming in and getting better.”
If that’s the case, Gervais might want to consider adding more space on the wall, as the future continues to grow brighter and brighter within the Grand Haven wrestling room.