Historic Victory for Escanaba’s Travis Heller

AUBURN HILLS – Three Delta County wrestlers made a statement Saturday at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Championships at the Palace of Auburn Hills, each finishing in the top five of their weight classes.

Escanaba’s Travis Heller wrapped up a brilliant prep wrestling career on a historic note, finishing third in the Division II 160 pound bracket. On Saturday, Heller dominated Gunner Harrison of Stevensville-Lakeshore, pinning him in 35 seconds to advance to the third place match. There, Heller faced Drew Wixson of St. Johns, the same opponent he defeated 10-4 in the regional final.

“He’s from St. Johns, a powerhouse in the state,” said Heller. “I had confidence, I knew I could win, I just had to go in there and wrestle to the best of my ability.”

Heller took the match 5-3, completing his comeback through the third-place bracket after falling on the second day of the tournament. The opponent Heller lost to on Friday, Tobias Barnes, ended up as state-runner up. Heller was disappointed in his effort and the outcome of that match.

“It was close, the score was 7-4 and I tried to do a last ditch effort at the end, then he got two points right at the end it made it 9-4,” he said. “I just didn’t wrestle to my full potential you could say. I wasn’t happy with the outcome.”

The loss only motivated Heller on Saturday.

“Wrestling on that last day, you’re sore and tired. After two weigh-ins and a couple matches, it’s hard to wrestle back, but after that loss, I just gritted my teeth and fought my way to third place,” Heller said.

The victory put Heller in uncharted territory for an Upper Peninsula wrestler. He is the highest place finisher of all-time for a U.P. athlete in Division II. Heller also finishes his career with 178 victories, making him the winningest wrestler in Upper Peninsula history.

“Travis will always be mentioned as one of the best wrestlers to ever wrestle for Escanaba, as he finished his career as a 4-time U.P. champion, 4-time state qualifier, and 3-time placer (8th, 5th, 3rd),” said head coach Jamie Segorski.

Heller said he wasn’t aware of the milestones until after his match when his coaches, Segorski and Jim Hansen told him.

“That’s just kind of a part of it. It comes with the long ride that my high school career has taken me. It’s just a great accomplishment,” he said. “I was pretty excited to hear it. It’s something I can hang my hat on.”

The top-three finish was years in the making for Heller, who two years ago, place seventh in the state. To move up four spots at the ultra-competitive Division II level, required a lot of time, personal sacrifice and effort.

“A lot of extra hours, staying after practice and during the summer time,” Heller said. “I’m glad it all finally came together.”

Heller also gave credit to his coaches and teammates for the achievement.

“There’s always people lifting with me. You always have someone wrestling with you after practice and in the summer, so I ahve to give a shoutout to my teammates for being with me for the ride,” he said. “All the hard work and everything I put in, it all came together, and I couldn’t have done it without coach Segorski and coach Hanson. They’ve been coaching me for years and I have to give a big shoutout to them.”

Heller said he intendes to continue wrestling at the college level, but was still deciding where that may be.

“I”m not 100 percent sure yet,” he said. “I have a few colleges but nothing narrowed down yet.”

Heller’s teammate Kaleb Rahoi placed fifth in the state in the 145 pound weight class. Rahoi wrestled in three matches Saturday, winning his first of the day 10-6 over Hunter Turner of North Branch. He was then defeated by Khannor Kaercher of Warren-Lincoln in an 11-5 decision. That dropped Rahoi to the fifth place match where he dominated Steven Kymes of Sault Ste. Marie 13-3.

“Rahoi is my practice partner, so I’m pretty stoked for him,” Heller said. “He’s been working hard all season and this was his first time on the podium.”

Segorski said Rahoi’s performance in tandem with Heller’s gave Escanaba a historic day at the state tournament.

“Kaleb fought back through the backside of the bracket to place fifth, Ut was a great for Kaleb, winning his 123rrd match as a junior,” Segorski said. “Together Kaleb and Travis lead the U.P., putting together the best day Escanaba has ever had on the floor of the Palace.”

Gladstone’s Jake Cronick was the only remaining Gladstone wrestler to compete on Saturday, but he made sure to make his school proud, placing fifth in the Division III 189 pound bracket.

Cronick lost his first match to Hunter Dunn of Monroe-Jefferson, getting pinned in 51 seconds. That dropped him to the fifth place match where he faced Jon Nielsen of Allendale.

It was a tight match, but Cronick led the whole way. He held a three point lead when Nielsen scored on a reversal with 10 seconds remaining to pull within a point.

“I just tried my best not to give up free points,” Cronick said.

DeBacker was proud of the effort, as Cronick was only the fourth Gladstone wrestler to place in the state tournament.

“He’s had an impressive jump, going from being in and out as a freshman to dominating his senior year,” he said. “He wrestled the best he’s ever wrestled in high school, it was a good way to end his career.”

It was a nice rebound for Cronick after falling on his second day at the tournament.

“I had the (eventual) state runner-up on the second day (Teddy Warren of Dundee), which was one of my better matches. He was the defending state champion from last year and I knew it would be tough,” Cronick said.

“I kind of figured I had nothing to lose (in the fifth place match). It was my last match and I gave it my all. It meant a lot to win. I’m the first to place under my head coach.”

DeBacker said Cronick’s victory could even pay dividends for the Gladstone wrestling program.

“Absolutely. Any time you get a kid that places high in the state, it shows the program which direction you want to go,” he said. “Hard work pays off and Jake worked his tail off this year, during the offseason and the season, and it paid off for him.”