With 10 seconds left in the 138-pound junior class final in April’s National High School Coaches Association wrestling championships in Virginia Beach, Va., Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer of Cheektowaga trailed by one point. He had won the state championship in March, and he had not lost a match all season.
He was facing a higher-ranked opponent in Alfred Bannister of Maryland, and he was in seemingly the most dire situation.
And then it happened.
With Bannister crouched low in an attempt to fend off any takedown attempts toward his legs, Rodriguez-Spencer did what many a top athlete would do: He took what was given to him. Specifically, he took to the air.
He flew like ... a flying squirrel?
The “flying squirrel” is the nickname given to a maneuver in which a wrestler leaps over his opponent in an attempt to score a takedown. It is rarely executed in any wrestling match at any level, much less in the final seconds, and certainly not for a national championship.
Rodriguez-Spencer went up and over to score a title-clinching takedown and a 4-3 victory, and he also leaped right into the national sports conversation. Yahoo! Sports, The Huffington Post and Deadspin were among the many websites that posted video of Rodriguez-Spencer’s move, as thousands clicked their way to see the Cheektowaga junior deliver one of those moments in sports that fans — and not just wrestling fans — have to watch over and over.
“In the last 10 seconds, I’m pretty comfortable there,” Rodriguez-Spencer said plainly, as if it is no big deal to be in such a precarious spot. “I just want to get a takedown either way ... I knew I probably couldn’t take him down because he was so low and he was expecting a shot. I knew I could hit the Flying Squirrel because I’ve done it before.
“I knew I could get it, because no one would expect it,” he said. “So I just hit it.”
The Flying Squirrel is a move that was first executed by Ellis Coleman, who did so at the 2011 World Championships, helping make him a bronze-medal winner along with a SportsCenter staple and a YouTube sensation (one clip of the move is approaching 1 million views). Coleman, a 2012 Olympian, has embraced the move to which he will forever be linked. His Twitter handle is @DaFlyinSquirrel. He told the London media last summer that he bought one as a pet.
Rodriguez-Spencer, however, is not all about the squirrel. He decided to try it with his brother, senior teammate Miguel, in practice (Coleman developed the move with his brother in practice). Renaldo pulled off the move twice during the season, and Miguel did once as well.
Cheektowaga coach Matt Haberl said he and Rodriguez-Spencer did not discuss the move as a possible strategy before the match.
“No way,” Haberl said. “The people at the table who were keeping score asked how many times do you teach that and go over it ... and I said, ‘We don’t.’ This is his move. He does it in practice. He’s doesn’t do it all the time, he’s not trying to showboat it, he’s hit it a couple of times this year and people are expecting to see it, but that’s not him. He’s going out there to win.”
Rodriguez-Spencer has such an array of offensive moves that he is almost impossible to defend. He was 47-0 this season at Cheektowaga, and he’d even performed dramatic takedowns in the final seconds before. In the Division II 132-pound state championship, he scored a double-leg takedown to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory — with 1.5 seconds left.
“Over the last four years, everyone knew that he had this great double-leg takedown, and other coaches have been trying to defend it, and making the wrestlers go in different positions,” Haberl said. “To Renaldo’s credit, he’s in here, and he works hard, and we try to figure things out and he tries to figure things out on how not to defend it.
“His arsenal is so great. I don’t care if it’s under, over, top, bottom, get in your stance, don’t get in your stance ... no one’s found a way to stop him yet.”
In Virginia Beach, there was a buildup toward a final showdown between Rodriguez-Spencer and Bannister. When it came to the final seconds, the decision for Rodriguez-Spencer was made for him since Bannister was crouching so low to the mat.
“I just knew he wouldn’t expect it,” Rodriguez-Spencer said. “He was staying low, because that’s all his coach was yelling. So I knew, going over top of him would be the sure thing to do.
“I just grabbed his head, and I pulled myself in and hopped over him ... I knew I had to get as high as I could, so when I did it, I did it so fast and so hard, that actually when I jumped, I kind of flipped. As I flipped, he kind of came down right on top of me, and I just reacted, threw him off me, came around, and I got the mat return that gave me the two points.
“He actually kind of nicked my leg [in mid-air], which threw me off balance a little bit when I fell to my back, but when I got to my back, I just finished off the move.
“I never thought I’d do it, because my takedowns would be good. ... But since he was just so low, I knew I had to pull something out. Why not do that when I know I can do it?
“I’m not planning on using it [regularly]. I’ll just stick with my takedowns and the safe moves, because in the last 10 seconds, nobody is thinking about someone jumping over them. All they’re thinking of is staying low, sprawling, circling, and I’m thinking about going over the top if I have to.”
For the photo shoot that re-created the move, Cheektowaga eighth-grader Erik Bartnik had the pleasure of playing the part of the opponent. Although he knew what was coming, he was still impressed by the up-and-over move. One second you are eye-to-eye. The next, Bartnik said, “It’s like, where’d he go?”
“Did I expect it? Absolutely not,” Haberl said. “When it happened, it was just nuts. It was so out of the realm.
“He’s always in control, his mind is always working, he knows wrestling. My assistant coach and I, we see it every day. Every day is something different, and it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ That’s the best way to put it: ‘Everyday wow.’ ”
In the videos posted online, when Rodriguez-Spencer pulls off the move, you can see Haberl go a little out of the realm as well.
There was also a lot of emotion in a car traveling from Johnson City to Buffalo. That’s where Todd Rodriguez-Spencer, Renaldo’s dad, was after coaching the Buffalo Grapplers Wrestling Club in the Greco-Roman state championships (where Bartnik won a state title).
Todd Rodriguez-Spencer was in the back seat, with Bartnik, watching his son compete via an Internet connection on his phone.
“The reaction you saw on the screen down there was the reaction I had sitting in the back seat of the car,” Todd said. “I went crazy. He’s my son, it’s my son doing spectacular. I went ballistic. We pulled over just outside Warsaw [to watch it]. It was a very short trip coming back from Johnson City.”
Haberl and Todd Rodriguez-Spencer have forged a strong relationship, but it’s one that might be more unlikely, or more strange, than a twisting, turning mid-air wrestling move named after a rodent.
In the early 1980s, when Haberl was at Maryvale and Todd Rodriguez-Spencer was at Albion, the two had a fierce rivalry, with Haberl winning a matchup between them at the Section VI tournament. The two both attended Niagara County Community College, but the relationship remained rough. In an alumni match, Rodriguez-Spencer bloodied Haberl and their bout nearly escalated to an all-out brawl.
“We were arch-enemies,” Todd said.
“Hate?” Haberl said. “Hate is a nice way of putting it.”
However, as Miguel and Renaldo were growing up, and excelling in wrestling, their father sought to move out of Buffalo to an area with a strong wrestling program. He considered Niagara Falls and Lancaster, but there were similarly aged wrestlers in Renaldo’s weight class.
“I kept reading in The Buffalo News about Cheektowaga, Cheektowaga,” said Todd, who is a pastor and commutes to a church in Utica. “He has such a great program ... but I didn’t want to do it, because he and I never got along. I said, you know what, I’m going to humble myself, and I’m going to talk to Coach Haberl. He called me back, and he said, ‘It’s water under the bridge.’ ”
Haberl recalled one of Renaldo’s early wins. “We beat a senior in a final, and all of a sudden the first guy out of the stands is [Todd], giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. ... We’ve come such a long way.”
“I couldn’t stand him,” Todd said. “And now he’s one of my closest friends.”
The week after the trip to Virginia Beach, Rodriguez-Spencer finished fifth in the Greco-Roman division of the Junior National Championships in Las Vegas. He will spend the summer attending elite tournaments like the Junior & Cadet National Championships in Fargo, N.D., in July. In this year’s final high school rankings, Intermat and Flo.com named Renaldo one of the top 100 juniors in the nation, with both websites ranking him in the top 20 in the country at 132 pounds.
Several colleges have been in touch regarding Renaldo. Haberl said that six coaches gave him their cards in the minutes after the national championship match.
“I just hope I can keep winning, keep doing what I do: practice hard, give up no takedowns, give up nothing, just be as dominant as I can,” Renaldo said. “Be the best wrestler in Section VI and keep it moving through college.”