KINGSFORD, Mich. (WJMN) – As this year’s wrestling season approached, Elizin Rouse, who had previous wrestling experience, had no intentions of taking the mat. But that changed after a short conversation with his former youth wrestling coach, Chris Wilcox.
“At the beginning of the year I didn’t want to wrestle,” said Rouse. “He told me to just come out and try it and just like ‘you’re almost graduated and you have nothing to lose’.”
After some thought Rouse made his decision: he was going to wrestle. With Rouse leading the way, the Flivvers quickly began finding success.
“We didn’t have the numbers to compete with a lot of teams,” said Darren Groleau, the head coach of the Kingsford wrestling team. “But we still ended up placing top four at U.P.’s. We won our first district title as a team in over 12 years which is absolutely huge with the numbers that we had and Eli was a big part of that.”
While helping the Flivvers reach their team goals, Rouse also checked off a number of individual goals that he set at the start of the season. He became U.P. Champion, then captured a district championship and followed that up with a regional championship. The final goal: to bring home a state championship.
“I just like competition,” said Rouse. “Nothing against team sports but I like that it’s you against them so It’s the best man wins. There are no excuses. It’s you verse them. It’s not like my teammate did this, it’s all you.”
Rouse would enter the last week’s state finals with an overall record of 31-4. He found motivation after being named the 11th seed in the 16 team field. Rouse says the lower seed put a chip on his shoulder.
“He’s been wrestling motivated,” said Groleau. “He’s been wrestling smart. He was wrestling his best at the right time. We talk about peaking at the right time and Eli was peaking at the right time. He was on absolute fire. He knocked off the 8th ranked kid, the number one ranked kid, and he went out there and he wanted it. He was confident in his abilities.”
On the brink of history, Groleau had a simple message to Rouse to keep things in perspective.
“It’s just another match, buddy,” said Groleau. “You go out there, you stick to your game plan and you leave it all out there. It’s one last match of the year, put on a show. Give it everything you have for six hard minutes, wrestle smart, wrestle aggressive, and he stuck to the plan.”
Rouse’s opponent in the state final was No. 2 seed Bennett VandenBerg of Constantine. The two wrestlers met earlier in the season, a match Rouse lost 9-1.
“We wrestled him back in December,” said Groleau. “We talked to their coaches and said, ‘hey, we hope to see you at state finals this year.’ We were thinking maybe quarterfinals or semifinals, but we saw them in the finals. Their coach on Constantine said, ‘hey, you called it back in December.’ I said, ‘yeah, I didn’t think we were going to make the finals with you but Eli wanted this, he wanted that rematch.'”
“They were telling me that I’m a different wrestler now,” said Rouse. “Like, I was sloppy in the first match and don’t worry about the first time we wrestled because I’m different now.”
On the biggest stage, Rouse and Vandenberg would put on a show. The back and fourth match would go into sudden victory, wrestling’s equivalent to overtime. In the end it was Rouse’s hand that was raised after a 5-3 decision, one that placed Rouse in the history books.
“We made history,” said Groleau. “Eli being the first, not only the first Kingsford state champ, but also the first division 3 state champ. It was just remarkable and couldn’t have happened to a better kid. It was probably one of the biggest upsets to happen in MHSAA wrestling. It was an 11th seed coming through in the top half of the bracket and knocking off the 8th seed, the 1 seed, and the 2 seed. You don’t remember the last time that’s ever happened. So, Eli made history.”
And while Rouse’s name will now be remembered far after his time at Kingsford High School, his story isn’t finished. Rouse is only scratching the surface of his potential.
“We asked him, ‘Are you satisfied?’ He said, ‘No, coach. I’m not satisfied. I have three goals for next season: I want to be undefeated, I want to get 100 wins and I want to repeat as state champion.’ That’s just unbelievable. That’s his mindset already. He’s ready to go and if he carries his confidence the way he did into states then nobody will be able to touch him.”
Since capturing his state championship Rouse has gone back to where his wrestling career began speaking to and inspiring current youth wrestlers.
“It feels pretty good,” said Rouse. “All the little kids love it and I’m glad that they’re excited about it.”
“He broke the wall down for these kids,” said Groleau. “They saw a home grown kid that wrestled in the youth program doing what they’re doing and stepping on top of that podium. Those kids are going to believe in themselves.