MU8KEGON TOWNSHIP – It’s tough enough being the smallest guy in the game when you’re playing against kids in your own age group.

Things gets really challenging when you’re a 5-foot-4, 125-pound freshman playing against high school guys who are mostly two or three years older and a lot taller and heavier.

After half a season with the Reeths-Puffer hockey team, Eli Cuti knows all about it.

He knows about the verbal abuse that comes from opponents who are trying to get under his skin and throw him out of his game.

“I do get that a lot,” Cuti said. “They do it if I make a good play or a bad play. They just chirp at me a lot, call me a dwarf and stuff like that. It’s part of the game.”

R-P hockey freshman forward Eli Cuti

Cuti says things can get rough sometimes, too, because he’s an easy target for opponents.

“I just realize I’m going to get knocked down a lot,” Cuti said. “I get popped in the mouth sometimes. You just have to fight through it.”

Cuti has done more than just fight through all the challenges that come with being the smallest guy on the rink.

With guts, determination and a massive love for hockey, he has quickly become one of the best forwards in the area, particularly when it comes to setting up goals.

Cuti and teammate Connor Stawski currently lead the Rockets with 19 assists apiece. That’s not surprising, because Cuti is a natural playmaker with a great eye for developing plays, according to Reeths-Puffer head coach Ryan Martin.

Cuti skates away after scoring a goal. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“It was pretty obvious early on that his vision was top notch, and now we realize it’s even better than what we thought,” Martin said. “He’s very patient with the puck and smart enough to know when and where to go with it. He’s able to find passing lanes that other players don’t see.”

Cuti also has a lot of potential as a goal scorer – he has seven goals so far this season, including the thrilling game-winner against Hudsonville with 34 seconds left on the clock last week – but says he prefers to be the guy setting up goals, even if that doesn’t bring a lot of glory.

“When I need to bury the puck I can,” he said. “I have a pretty good shot. But I’ve always been a pass-first guy. I just think that’s more important. I need to find my teammates to have success. I can’t just do it myself. I know when I get an assist I’m happy with it.”

After years of playing youth hockey in the Muskegon Junior Lumberjacks program with kids in his own age group, Cuti admits he was a little anxious about going out for varsity this season and playing with and against guys who seem like giants by comparison.

But hockey has always been his passion, he couldn’t wait for the chance to play varsity, so he dove it and gave it his all.

Cuti is tied for the lead on the R-P hockey team with 19 assists this season. Photo/Jeremy Clark

“I’ve been working for this most of my life,” he said. “I have always spent a lot of time working out with my brother (Tyler Cuti) on the ice, and I just went in with the mentality of fighting for a spot on the team.

“It was nerve-wracking out there at first. Everyone was a lot bigger and I wasn’t as developed as I am now. I was pretty surprised when I got a spot on the team, but after tryouts I was feeling pretty good.”

Cuti has also adjusted to playing for a school he does not attend.

He and seven of his teammates – Mark Stewart, Gavin Pastotnik, Ricky Wiggins, Jaxon Stone, Vincent Pollock and Sean Gieske – are Fruitport High School students, but Fruitport does not have a hockey program.

For the past few seasons the school had a co-op relationship with Kenowa Hills, so the hockey kids played for the Knights, but this year Fruitport switched its partnership to Reeths-Puffer and the Trojans became Rockets on the ice.

Cuti takes a spill with an opponent after battling in front of the goal. Photo/Joe Lane

That change suited Cuti just fine, because R-P plays its home games at Muskegon’s Trinity Health Arena, where he has always spent a great deal of time. Cuti grew up attending a lot of Muskegon Lumberjacks games with his family, played most of his youth hockey games at the arena, and now works part-time for the Jacks, doing odd jobs during and after games.

His family also has Lumberjacks players living with them during the season – this year it’s goalie Conor Callaghan – so playing for a team that shares a building with the Jacks feels natural for Cuti.

“I was happy to hear that,” Cuti said about getting the news that Fruitport players would be suiting up with R-P this season.

The Rockets are more than just a combination of R-P and Fruitport players. The roster also includes kids from North Muskegon, Muskegon Catholic Central, Whitehall and Montague.

Cuti battles along the boards for the puck. Photo/Joe Lane

“It feels a little odd not going to school with some of the guys, but at the same time it’s pretty fun to come together and play hockey together,” Cuti said. “We hang out together a ton outside of hockey time, and I think that really helps. We go watch games together, go out to eat, stuff like that.”

What’s even more fun is all the winning the Rockets have been doing lately. After losing their first two games, the Rockets have turned their season around dramatically, winning 13 of their past 16.

Their victory over first-place Hudsonville last week – made possible by Cuti’s dramatic game-winning goal – put the Rockets very much in contention for an O-K Conference Fischer Division championship. That’s pretty good for a team that went 6-18-1 last season.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into us, but it’s been really fun,” Cuti said. “At the start of the season I didn’t know how good we might be, but I saw we could be good after a few practices.”