Now that the gold dust has settled on the Godfrey-Lee wrestling season, coach James Maxim has some time to think about the team’s record-breaking accomplishments.
Though the season ended a couple months back for the Rebels, Maxim is just as animated about their success, using words like “astonishing,” “unbelievable” and yet “much deserved.”
With adversity staring them straight in the face the past couple years, the Rebels came through to break many records this season — including winning the first district wrestling title in school history.
“They won this year working under the most adverse conditions that any team could have done,” said Maxim, in his fourth season with Godfrey-Lee. “That’s why it was so cool.
“It was one record after another we were breaking with kids that had no experience.”
Records in a Nutshell
Here’s a quick rundown of the team’s accomplishments:
- The Rebels won their first-ever district wrestling title with a 39-36 win over Kelloggsville, in a Division 3 final in February at Godwin Heights. That big win came after trailing 36-12.
- They won their first team trophy at the Reed City Invitational.
- Senior co-captain Enrique Moreno-Martinez was the first Lee wrestler to win a conference medal all four years. He also finished with a school-record 109 career wins and earned four varsity letters.
But wait, there’s more:
- They were named the Most Improved Team at the Kent County Championship, and compiled an 11-2 record this season.
- All 11 wrestlers who competed at the conference championships medaled (fourth place or higher).Senior co-captain Nicolas Espinoza finished with 102 career wins and four varsity letters.
- Carlos Savala earned the most team points.
- Mike Beasley was an individual regional qualifier.
- Amber Fenton was the first Lee female wrestler to earn a third-place conference varsity medal.
- Regan Mockerman earned a fourth-place medal in the first MHSAA female tournament.
Down to the Wire
In the district final at Godwin, after trailing 36-12 and losing seven of the first nine matches, the Rebels landed five consecutive wins to pull out the title. They got early victories from Mike Beasley and Amber Fenton, and the final five from Carlos Savala, Yunior Mejia, Nicolas Espinoza, Alan Maya and Enrique Moreno-Martinez.
“It was a lot of heart; and something they deserved,” Maxim said. “We asked them to give it their best and they ended up doing it.”
With the match tied at 36-36, Enrique “did it for the team,” Maxim said. “He was a freshman when I came in, so it was really cool to see a kid like that do it for the team.
“They are the most unselfish kids you could ever imagine. They appreciate everything, plain and simple.”
Enrique said he definitely felt extra pressure to win.
“Because this was the first time our school had a solid chance in winning the team district, it was either ‘I cement this team as the best Lee has ever had by coming back with the team district title, or go and live in the shame,’” he said. “Honestly, with the wonderful group of people who contributed to the win, it was an honor to wrestle by their side that night.”
His close relationship with coach Maxim contributed to his success as well, Enrique said.
“Coach took me in like I was one of his own kids; he would hype me up during practices, coaches meetings and even outside of the sport with friends. There were times where a few of them came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations on the big win’ or ‘You have the heart of a true Rebel.’”
Maxim’s wife, Karen, also encouraged him, and his son, Justin, spent hours helping out the team.
Through Rain, Sleet or Snow
All of these record-breaking accomplishments came through practicing in the basement of a church — not exactly the perfect spot for a wrestling team.
After practicing on Lee’s band stage and sharing the gym with many other sports programs, the grapplers eventually hooked up with Wyoming’s Eighth Reformed Church, which provided basement space.
“It wasn’t ideal, but at least we had someplace to work out,” Maxim said. “These kids left school, whether it was snowing or raining or a blizzard, and they walked about three-quarters of a mile to get to the church. It would take a while to thaw them out.”
Enrique said the walks to the church were “brutal and difficult.” By making the trek, the team showed ”nothing is going to stop them from practicing,” he said.
Recruitment by Pizza
When Maxim accepted the coaching job in the fall of 2015, after coaching for 25 years at Caledonia, there was only one returning wrestler. Fortunately for him, there was also an exchange student who loved wrestling.
“It wasn’t building a program, it was planting seeds,” said Maxim, a Realtor by day. “And this was only a couple weeks away from the season’s start. So I said I needed to meet this kid right away, ‘like tomorrow.’”
“This kid” was Alexis Slagter, introduced to Maxim by Athletic Director Jason Faasse. Maxim told Alexis they needed to get some students out for the team and start conditioning. The coach provided pizzas and had them play flag football instead, every Tuesday and Thursday. Within a few weeks the group grew from three to six, to nine, to 12.
After a few practices Maxim asked how the pizza was. Enrique said, “Coach, the pizzas are good, but how about tacos?”
“We just hit it off and built a great relationship with these kids and my family as well,” Maxim said.
During Maxim’s first competition, where his team beat both opponents, he said the wrestlers went up in the stands to hug their parents because they hadn’t had anyone cheer like that before.
“That was the coolest thing, and I had state teams and state champions at Caledonia,” Maxim said. “Whether they (Lee) won anything big or not it didn’t matter; it was what they were getting out of it.”
Maxim said one key to his team’s early success was bringing ex-Caledonia wrestler and U.S. Marine Scott Gnass on as the conditioning coach. “This is how we got through a lot of our matches. They had the conditioning to survive.”
Other assistant coaches were brothers Flavio and Isandro Gomez, who wrestled for Maxim at Caledonia, and Michael Henderson, Godfrey-Lee’s middle school coach. Maxin and the team also greatly appreciated a spirit committee of supportive parents.
A Long, Long Time Coming
Those first two wins in the opening match were the first Rebel wrestlers had achieved in a very long time.
“The following day I came in for practice early and walked by the band practicing, and they were waving and saying, ‘Hi coach,’” Maxim recalled. “Half of the kids I recruited were in the band. And as I’m walking through, an announcement comes on over the P.A. and they’re ranting and raving about the win, saying the wrestling team won its first varsity match in over 30 years.”
Turns out that wasn’t quite true, he found out in the office — the last win was actually in 1977, almost 40 years prior, Faasse confirmed.
Success bred enthusiasm. The team has since had as many as 28 wrestlers, the same as some Division 1 and 2 schools, Maxim said. In a school of 458 students, “We were told that was impressive. I think it is cool.”
One of them was Yunior Mejia, who had never wrestled before. He ended up having a phenomenal season this year, winning every one of his district and regional matches.
‘It was one record after another we were breaking with kids that had no experience.’ — Godfrey-Lee wrestling coach James Maxim
As for team leader Enrique, he will never forget the adversity and experiences he had with Lee wrestling, even as he moves on to study culinary arts at Grand Rapids Community College next fall.
“I just fell in love with the sport; the bonds you make with rivals, the team and just the sport of wrestling,” he said. “This is honestly one of the hardest sports in high school and a great way of showing how durable you are, because with this sport there is hardly ever an easy day of practice and there is never an easy match.
“You must wrestle every match as if it was your last.”