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Craig Zeerip and Matt Brink developed their passion for wrestling growing up in rural communities roughly 40 minutes apart near Muskegon.
Zeerip parlayed a standout prep career at Fremont into a four-year stint at Ohio State (1984-88) while Brink's three-state-title resume at Fruitport led to a memorable run at Michigan (1997-2002).
They returned to their roots following college and began giving back to the sport as coaches.
This week, both coached teams to their first regional championships.
Zeerip guided his alma mater to a Division 3 title Wednesday on the same night Brink hoisted a Division 2 trophy with his Muskegon Reeths-Puffer squad.
They celebrated for a night before beginning preparations for next Friday's quarterfinals at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo. Semifinals and finals are at the same venue the next day (Feb. 29).
Here is a closer at how Fremont and Reeths-Puffer finally broke through to reach the final eight in their divisions.
Zeerip may taking the Packers to the quarterfinals for the first time, but he is no stranger to this level of the state tournament and beyond.
Just down the road from Fremont, he made 14 quarterfinal appearances during a long tenure (1991-2013) on Hesperia's coaching staff, including as head coach the first 10 seasons. Hesperia won the 2008 Division 4 state championship and made the state title match five other times.
Zeerip also watched sons Justin, Collin and Brandon win a combined nine individual state championships before seeing all three wrestle at the University of Michigan despite their father being a former Buckeye.
Collin and Justin are now co-head coaches at Whitehall which, ironically, was prevented from returning to Kalamazoo by a district loss to Reeths-Puffer.
Craig Zeerip took over at Fremont in 2014 and began building his alma mater up from nearly nothing. There were six wrestlers his first season, a number that has grown to 27.
Still, the Packers, who competed in Division 2 last season, have made a quite a leap this winter after not advancing from the team district tournament and not qualifying anybody for the individual state tournament last year.
Fremont brought a 20-4 record into this year's district tournament, but came dangerously close to seeing their quarterfinal dreams come to an abrupt end before edging Howard Tri-County (39-37) in the semifinals. Both teams won seven weight classes, but the Packers recorded six pins to Tri-County's five.
It's been much smoother sailing since. Fremont knocked off Grant (40-25) to win the district before taking care of Muskegon Orchard View (60-15) and Comstock Park (46-21) to capture the regional.
The Packers, who have beaten Division 4 quarterfinalist Hart this season, advanced nine to the individual regional, three more than a year ago.
Repeat regional qualifiers are Kyler Kolk (215 pounds, 36-7 record), Gage Breuker (130, 28-7) Chase Knudsen (160, 35-8) and Matt Halasinski (140, 36-10).
R.J. Thome (103) has improved from 40-11 last year to 41-3 and advanced to the regional. He also won a league championship earlier this month. Troy Breuker (152) is a regional qualifer and league champion as well, improving from 35-15 last year to 37-7.
Other regional qualifiers are Alex Gleason (135, 27-12), Mike Romero (189, 31-13) and Jager Kibert (145, 32-11).
Brink is finally heading to the quarterfinals for the first time as a wrestler or coach. His patience is, at last, paying off after 18 seasons on the Rockets' staff, the last 14 as head coach.
Fruitport, coach by his father Dan at the time, did not make it during Matt's high school career. Individually, he finished second in the state as a sophomore in addition to the three state heavyweight championships and finished with a 167-2 record. Brink remains Michigan's only freshman heavyweight state champion.
At the University of Michigan, he was a two-time All-American, four-time NCAA qualifier and four-time All-Big Ten performer while compiling a 106-44 record.
Reeths-Puffer (25-1) has swept the Muskegon City, league, district and regional tournaments this season. The Rockets have lost only to fellow Division 2 quarterfinalist Stevensville Lakeshore, but have beaten Fremont and Hart.
Reeths-Puffer, which returned four state qualifiers from last year's team which won its fifth straight district title, faced Allendale in the regional final. The Rockets never trailed after Thade Radosa (145) won via pin to make it 15-13, pulling away to a 40-31 win. They trounced Greenville in the semifinals, 56-18.
The Rockets faced their biggest obstacle, however, in the district semifinals against eight-time defending district champion Whitehall, a Division 2 semifinalist last season.
They trailed by eight points with three matches remaining before pulling out a 34-30 win.
Radosa and Jimmy Rozycki (152) both won decisions to make it 30-28 before Caleb McNeil (37-4 this season) faced Jacob Haynes (20-6) in the final match at 160. The pair were deadlocked at 6-6 before McNeil pinned Hayes with 31 seconds remaining.
Reeths-Puffer blanked Muskegon, 77-0, in the district final.
Radosa (41-1), Roszycki (40-3), McNeil, Colby Stephenson (215, 42-1), Hunter McCall (285, 38-1), Alex Chipman (135, 35-8), Payton Dobben (171, 31-10), Conner Bloomstrom (112, 28-12), Jacob Blawat (119, 38-6) and Noah McKinnon (130, 26-7) are all regional qualifiers.
McCall was third in the state last season while Radosa, Blawat and McKinnon were all state qualifiers. Radosa has improved from 39-11 last season while Rozycki was 33-10 and McNeil 30-17. Bloomstrom, who did not advance from last year's district tournament, was just 22-18 last season.
Brink’s love of wrestling was instilled by his father, a state champion at Muskegon Orchard View and later an All-American at Muskegon Community College and, like his son, at the University of Michigan.
The elder Brink also returned to the area after college and jumped into coaching. He guided Whitehall and Fruitport to a combined 204-105-1 record in 18 total seasons.
Mark Spezia is a freelance writer based in Lapeer, Michigan. He has written for ESPNW, Flohockey, Flint, Michigan-based My City Magazine, the Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit Magazine and Troy, Michigan-based Oakland Press. He previously worked for the Flint Journal, Lapeer (Michigan) County Press and Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton, Michigan.