MUSKEGON — Reeths-Puffer might be in line for another big postseason run after defeating Ludington in a fast-paced pre-district game Wednesday night, 2-0.
Reeths-Puffer coach Kody Harrell cited the Rockets' tough schedule as a factor in last season's district run that ended in a double-overtime loss to Spring Lake. After having won the O-K Green Conference tournament as the #4 seed and recently earning ties with highly-regarded Fruitport and East Grand Rapids, Wednesday marked a sign that the Rockets (11-5-4) may again be benefiting from seeing top competition already.
"I think that was good for our guys to see that kind of competition, not just when we saw it but in the way we saw it," Harrell said of a particular three-game stretch in which the Rockets lost 3-0 games to Spring Lake (R-P's next opponent), Mona Shores and Holland. "It was like, 'Hey, boys, you want to be a real district championship contender, you want to go after that first regional win in school history, these are the kind of teams you're going to have to beat three games in a row.'"
The Rockets' midfield looked district title-caliber Wednesday, seemingly winning possession every time it was determined there. That dominance paid off just under 15 minutes into the game, when R-P corralled the ball after the Ludington keeper attempted to clear it. The ball went right to Liam Smith, who quickly launched a shot towards the goal before the Oriole keeper could get back in position, and it sailed over his head for the score.
"Any time we catch the keeper out (of the net) or the defense unorganized, we're going for it," Smith, said. "That's a huge strategy for us."
Smith later put another one in the net with just two seconds to go in the game, a final flourish to the win. The goal was his 25th of the season.
The "unsung hero" of the game, Harrell said, was sophomore JT Fansler. Fansler, who is playing the same midfield spot Smith was playing last season before moving to a striker position this year, was Johnny on the spot, making the save when Ludington fired the ball at the net while Rocket keeper Gage Hopkins was out of position attempting to make a play.
Harrell said that was the third time this year Fansler has stopped an opponent from scoring on such a play.
"He's my heartbeat, man," Harrell said of Fansler. "Liam Smith is able to have the stats he has because JT plays (there)...JT being able to do the things he does, I know I'm comfortable with my defense back there."
Smith half-joked that the Rockets "thanked" Fansler for the play during halftime and said the two are close friends and Fansler is a huge factor on the team.
"He's a huge player for our team, especially in that position," Smith said. "Without him, it would be a struggle for sure."
R-P will have another tall task in a district full of them next week when it faces the Lakers, who kicked off that three-game stretch Harrell considered so pivotal earlier this season. However, armed with a new formation that the Rockets began playing right when this recent run began - one focused on creating space for players to work in - R-P is confident it can avenge last year's heart-stopping district finals defeat.
"It's simply the motivation to beat these teams that are getting more press and more fame, I guess you could say," Smith said. "We want to beat them and show that we deserve to be up there. Our team is just playing great right now."