By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A year ago, Detroit Country Day won its first MHSAA hockey championship since 1981 – and a year later, Houghton may have to go through the Yellowjackets to win its first title on the ice since 1982.
But two others will challenge the past champions recent and old. East Grand Rapids and Riverview Gabriel Richard are seeking their first Finals hockey title – making for plenty of historic opportunities in the Division 3 bracket.
This weekend’s pairings are as follows:
Division 3 – Friday
Riverview Gabriel Richard (17-10-1) vs. Houghton (22-5-1), 11 a.m.
Detroit Country Day (22-4-2) vs. East Grand Rapids (22-5-1), 1:30 p.m.
FINALS – Saturday
Division 3 - 2 p.m.
Click for a full schedule of this weekend's games plus full results as they come in. Player statistics below are through the Regional round.
DETROIT COUNTRY DAY
Record/rank: 22-4-2, No. 6
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2018, Class B-C-D champion 1981, two runner-up finishes.
Coach: Frank Novock, eighth season (154-56-10)
League finish: Second in Michigan Metro Hockey League East.
Best wins: 6-1 over No. 1 Detroit U-D Jesuit in Quarterfinal, 3-1 over No. 3 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in Regional Semifinal, 4-1 over No. 4 Warren DeLaSalle, 5-3 over No. 10 Grosse Pointe South, 4-1 over No. 12 Allen Park, 2-0 over No. 8 Flint Powers Catholic, 4-0 over Riverview Gabriel Richard, 4-3 over Division 2 No. 3 Livonia Stevenson, 4-0 over Division 1 No. 12 Utica Eisenhower.
Players to watch: Lucas Krol, soph. F (11 goals, 23 assists), Mickey VanAntwerp, sr. F (20 goals, 28 assists); Dallas Hood, jr. F (14 goals, 12 assists); Sam Evola, sr. G (1.15 goals-against average, 6 shutouts).
Outlook: Country Day is 8-1-1 over its last 10 games, and Wednesday’s big win over top-ranked Jesuit avenged one of the Yellowjackets’ few losses. Evola was Mr. Hockey last season after leading the team to its first championship in nearly four decades, and the defense is clicking again as Country Day has given up three goals total over the last seven games. Five players had at least 20 points entering the week – juniors Gino Sessa (7 goals/17 assists) and Logan Gotinsky (12 goals/15 assists) also have been among top offensive contributors.
EAST GRAND RAPIDS
Record/rank: 22-5-1, No. 11
Championship history: Division 3 runner-up 2002.
Coach: Christopher Newton, first season (22-5-1)
League finish: Second in Ottawa-Kent Conference Baum.
Best wins: 5-4 (Regional Semifinal) and 8-0 over No. 14 Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 2-0 over No. 12 Allen Park, 2-1 over No. 7 Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, 7-6 over Division 1 No. 7 Byron Center, 4-1 over Division 1 No. 9 Macomb Dakota, 5-3 over Division 2 No. 12 Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern/Eastern.
Players to watch: Jake Adams, sr. F (33 goals, 15 assists); Nate Milanowski, soph. F (11 goals, 24 assists); Reily O’Connor, sr. F (12 goals, eight assists); Colin Stecco, sr. F (23 goals, 29 assists).
Outlook: Newton, formerly an assistant for Farmington who helped lead that team to the 2014 Division 3 title, has East Grand Rapids headed to the Semifinals for the first time since its runner-up finish in 2002. The Pioneers won their first Regional title since 2012-13 and are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games. They scored at least five goals in 11 games this season – including all three of the MHSAA Tournament. Junior forward Ryley Sikkenga added 10 goals heading into this week, and junior defenseman Robbie Stuursma had six goals and 15 assists to round out the team’s 20-point scorers.
Record/rank: 22-5-1, No. 5
Championship history: Class B-C-D champion 1982, four runner-up finishes.
Coach: Corey Markham, 20th season (324-187-21)
League finish: Second in Great Lakes Hockey Conference.
Best wins: 4-1 over No. 9 Alpena in the Quarterfinal, 3-2 (Regional Final) and 4-2 over No. 2 Calumet, 5-1 over No. 4 Warren DeLaSalle, 3-2 over No. 3 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, 3-1 over Division 2 No. 4 Birmingham Brother Rice, 6-1 and 3-0 over Division 2 No. 9 Marquette, 6-0 over Division 1 No. 12 Utica Eisenhower, 4-2 over Division 1 No. 5 Rochester United.
Players to watch: Kevin Bostwick, sr. D (5 goals, 28 assists); Brad Gauthier, sr. F (15 goals, 19 assists); PJ Donnelly, sr. F (16 goals, 22 assists); Brendan Erickson, sr. F/D (17 goals, 19 assists).
Outlook: Houghton most recently was the Division 3 runner-up in 2012 and 2015, and has prepped for this weekend against top competition from all three divisions this season. The Gremlins have won nine of their last 10 games and avenged two of their losses by beating Calumet at the Regional. Bostwick made the all-state first team last season, while Donnelly made the second and Erickson earned honorable mention. Sophomore Jimmy Pietila has done most of the work in goal and carried a 1.80 goals-against average with six shutouts into this week.
RIVERVIEW GABRIEL RICHARD
Record/rank: 17-10-1, unranked
Championship history: Two MHSAA runner-up finishes (most recent 2003).
Coach: Rick Desana, 14th season (188-161-15)
League finishes: Tied for second in Detroit Catholic League Division II, fifth in Michigan Metro Hockey League East.
Best wins: 2-1 over No. 1 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 4-3 over Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard/Greenhills in Quarterfinal, 4-2 over Port Huron Northern.
Players to watch: Chance Desana, sr. F (18 goals, 15 assists); Nathan Vazquez, jr. F (23 goals, 19 assists); Jake Emery, jr. D (6 goals, 24 assists); Austin Harrison, jr. F (12 goals, 13 assists).
Outlook: Gabriel Richard has made the Semifinals for the second season in a row, while unranked entering the playoffs for both runs, and with many of the top contributors from a year ago leading the surge. The Pioneers are 14-2-1 over their last 17 games, and consider that three of the losses came to reigning champion Detroit Country Day and nine total against opponents ranked in the final poll. Senior forward Frank Klamerus is another key offensive contributor with 10 goals and 10 assists entering this week.
PHOTO: Houghton celebrates a 3-0 victory over Marquette this season (Photo by Cara Kamps.)
When Gage Looker went down with an ACL injury in Gaylord’s first football game this fall, Liz Harding – president of the Blue Devils’ hockey boosters – was absolutely devastated.
Looker, an all-conference hockey defenseman last winter, was playing, as a senior, in his first-ever varsity football game. Harding, also Looker’s mom, was there.
“I caught the one and only picture of him playing football just before he injured himself,” Harding recalled. “I was devastated!”
Doctors indicated surgery was necessary and recovery would prevent Looker from getting back on the ice, the football field and the track where Looker had dreams of great success this year.
“Knowing hockey is his passion — and thoughts of him not playing did not set well with me — Gage started what I would call standard physical therapy a couple days after surgery and then added an additional blood flow therapy with our local trainer to his weekly routine,” Harding said. “Through his hard work and determination, he is back on the ice.”
The Blue Devils, after graduating their other four all-conference players from last winter, were 2-11 this year when Looker returned to the ice against Big North Conference rival Petoskey. Gaylord has won three of seven since.
Gaylord coach Jamie Voss believes Looker’s return was pretty much a miracle. And he thinks Looker is playing at about 80 percent despite being only a few months removed from the injury.
“Gage tore his ACL and was told by doctors his sports life was over,” Voss said. “Gage would not accept this, and he trained harder than any kid I have ever witnessed to prove the doctors wrong.”
Sans injury, Voss notes Looker was certain to graduate on several all-time Gaylord hockey record lists.
“The reports on his progress and rehab were literally off the charts for this type of injury,” Voss said. “His doctors reported early that they have never seen this occur before regarding the strength developments in the afflicted areas that support his ACL tear.”
Voss admitted he had to hold his breath a little – as many Gaylord supporters did – when Looker joined the starting lineup against Petoskey. That moment came after just a week on the ice, including full contact practices.
“More important than records to Gage was his commitment and obligation to be our team leader as our compete level was predictably down this season,” Voss said. “Gage is one of the best athletes and citizens that I have ever been allowed to coach.
“He is not only a leader to the players on and off the ice, but Gage also is the kind of kid that coaches learn from,” Voss went on. “He is mature beyond his years.”
Looker, who started playing hockey at 4 years old, dabbled with football as a freshman although an eighth-grade hip injury kept him away from the field until this fall. Looker’s size – 6-foot-3, 245 pounds – led to many encouragements to give football another try.
“I went the rest of my high school career being told that I needed to play football,” Looker said. “So I said ‘why not’ my senior year because I could use the extra strength for hockey.”
Looker knew the morning after his one-and-only career football game that he needed medical attention promptly. A quick MRI showed extensive damage.
Looker was told he literally “blew apart” his ACL.
“My stomach dropped,” Looker said. “I was not ready for that at all.
“I was shown what my PCL looked like and then went to where my ACL should be, and it was gone — some say it was deleted,” Looker continued. “I was told I will not be able to play sports for about seven to nine months, and I was speechless.”
Two months after surgery and extensive physical therapy, Looker tried to skate. It went so well he began to entertain thoughts of playing hockey again. He may aspire to compete in track & field this spring.
“He runs a 56-second quarter mile and throws the shot put 48 feet, 10 inches,” Voss said of his dominating defender. “And although he is restricted from running, something tells me this kid will run track this spring.”
While it is not the senior hockey season it could have been without the injury, many are glad to just have Looker on the ice. His mom is among them.
“I am overjoyed to have him back on the ice,” Harding said. “At least he is getting in a few games and is out there making a difference.
“The smile on his face is priceless,” she continued. “Perhaps he'll continue with track as he is set to break records there too.”
Rehab fresh out of surgery was “very boring,” so Looker started intensifying his recovery with therapy four days a week for a few months.
“It was a lot of commitment, but I needed my senior year of hockey,” Looker said. “I was doing the basic things, and then I had a machine that could stimulate my muscles and pump blood to my knee.
“It is called ARPneuro,” he continued. “I was skating with that on my leg as well as doing mini workouts at home.”
ARP — accelerated, recovery and performance — reportedly accelerates recovery time by decreasing chronic pain and increasing range of motion without the use of medications.
“I was always putting as much work in as I could,” Looker said. “It definitely paid off in the end.”
Looker’s coach agrees.
“I have never heard of this, nor witnessed it,” Voss said. “Gage Looker is an anomaly, and in my opinion a different type of tough.
“Gage returned to practice full contact three months after he tore his ACL,” Voss continued. “And he played his first hockey game logging 30 of 51 minutes a week later.”
Looker credits the support and effort of his medical team and his teammates for helping him get back on track. However, no one gets more credit that the booster president.
“My mom and teammates helped me through it,” he said. “My mom was always on me about doing my workouts and keeping me disciplined.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Gaylord’s Gage Looker has returned to the ice this season only a few months after a serious knee injury. (Middle) Looker, right, watches his football teammates from the sideline this fall. (Below) Looker tries to stuff the puck past Tawas’ goaltender. (Photos by Rob DeForge/RD Sports Photo.)