Champ Lilly Honed In on Historic Quest

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

January 15, 2020

Chris Lilly could have plenty of thoughts racing through his mind as he goes through his senior wrestling season at Croswell-Lexington.

It’s his final year wrestling for his dad, Cros-Lex coach Joe Lilly, who has been in his corner since he began wrestling at 7 years old.

It could be his final year wrestling competitively period, as he’s not sure he’ll continue with the sport in college.

He’s a returning MHSAA Finals champion, having won the Division 2 title at 135 pounds a year ago, which has placed a target squarely on his back. Lilly is also the first Cros-Lex wrestler to ever have the chance to win a second title, as the school’s previous two champions – Donnie Corby and Collin Lieber – won as seniors. 

But Lilly isn’t thinking too much about any of that. He’s just thinking about wrestling.

“I’m just going to do what I do,” Lilly said. “I don’t feel pressured. I just feel like it’s my last season, so I’m going to work hard, and the outcome will be what it is. I know I have the opportunity to (be the program’s first two-time MHSAA champion), and that’s another motivation. But I don’t think about it like that all the time. I just feel free. I feel like if it happens, it happens. I want it to.”

Lilly’s approach is working as he’s 24-0 on the season and recently recorded his 150th career victory. While the possibility of creating Cros-Lex history is in front of him, what he’s already done makes him one of the program’s greatest of all-time.

“That’s awesome,” Joe Lilly said. “That’s beyond words and beyond my expectations. That’s never been put on the plate that it was what the expectation was. The main expectation for my kids is to put their best effort into everything they do. To now see where he’s come with that is phenomenal.”

As noted above, Chris began wrestling when he was 7 and has been coached by his dad the entire time. But he has been around the Cros-Lex program essentially since birth. 

“I was actually looking through pictures for graduation with my mom, and she kept pulling up pictures of me in (Dad’s) arms in the middle school gym with the wrestling team,” Chris said. “Ever since I was little, I was with him there.”

It was in sixth grade, Joe said, that things really started to click for Chris. That was the year Corby, a 2008 graduate, came back to coach after finishing his career at Central Michigan University. 

“I looked up to Donnie a lot,” Chris said. “I remember coming in when I was really little, and he’d mess around with me. When he went away and wrestling season would roll around, I’d always remember him and I’d look in the hall, look in the wrestling room and see his picture on the wall and think that I wanted to be that. When he came back, it made me want to buy in. Then (Lieber) comes around, and he was just another perfect role model for me. He was (a senior) my freshman year. He was a really good friend and role model.”

As a freshman and sophomore, Chris qualified for the MHSAA Finals but didn’t place. He entered last year’s tournament as a Regional runner-up with a 48-7 record, but battled through his bracket, defeating Madison Heights Lamphere’s Matthew Tomsett 6-3 in the final.

“If you would have told me that I was going to be a state champ my freshman year, I probably would have called you silly,” he said. “Honestly though, before states we were running in the wrestling room and I turned the corner and looked toward the door – that's where Collin’s picture and Donnie’s pictures are at – and that’s where I wanted to be. I felt like I had the stuff to do it. Checking into our hotel, the other wrestlers were there and I looked at every one of them and I wanted to wrestle them all in the lobby. I knew I could (win) it. We get there, and something just clicked. It was amazing. I felt like I couldn’t be stopped.”

While Chris was confident, it didn’t stop his dad from taking part in what has become a pre-Finals ritual of sorts.

“In all of my state championship matches that I’ve had kids wrestle, I’ve thrown up before we stepped on the mat,” Joe Lilly said. “In all three of them. With Chris, I was thinking I was fine, then they called his name and I threw up in the garbage can and went and met him at the mat. The component of it being your son, it’s a whole new dimension. But actually, once we got wrestling, it was the same as coaching him all year.”

Chris has a video saved on his phone of the post-match celebration, when the emotion of the moment started to hit and he jumped into his dad’s arms. It’s a video he said he watches every night. 

He’s motivated to enjoy that feeling again. But more than that, he’s motivated to show everyone that he can earn it once more.

“I feel like I still have something to prove,” he said. “I feel like people kind of doubt it. I was ranked seventh, and they say it was a fluke. I have to go back, and I have to prove it wasn’t.”

To do that, he’s focused on keeping things normal and not worrying about all that surrounds this season.

“It’s business as usual,” Chris said. “I get in the room and do what needs to be done. We work hard, but I kind of try to keep it light. That’s been kind of my key this year, is to have fun, like I did last year.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Croswell-Lexington’s Chris Lilly has his hand raised in victory during last season’s MHSAA Division 2 Individual Finals at Ford Field. (Middle) Lilly’s father and coach, Joe (front), celebrates his son’s win. (Click for more from

Bragging Rights for Both as Multi-Sport Sage Twins Shine at Ford Field

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

March 10, 2023

SOUTHGATE – The question of “Which child is your favorite?” is impossible for any parent to answer, but Shawn Sage has an additional question that’s impossible to answer regarding his son Jackson and daughter Brooklyn.

Greater DetroitThat question is, “Who would win a wrestling match between the two?”

“They are both raising their hands right now smiling about it,” Shawn Sage said with a laugh during a phone conversation.

It’s a good-natured question anybody can pose to Shawn Sage, given his son and daughter are not only twins by birth, but in wrestling achievements as sophomores at Southgate Anderson.

Last weekend at Ford Field, Jackson Sage competed in his second Individual Finals, where he finished fourth in Division 2 in the 157-pound weight class.

It was an improvement from last year’s event, when he qualified as a freshman but didn’t place.

“I was more used to it,” Jackson Sage said. “Last year was a different experience being at Ford Field the first time.”

Brooklyn Sage qualified for the Individual Finals this season as well, where she finished sixth in the Girls Division 155-pound weight class.

The winter was busy for both, but especially for Brooklyn. In addition to competing in wrestling, she was also a member of the school’s competitive cheer team.

“I knew that it would be a commitment,” she said. “But I was up for it. I was at the school for about 14 hours a day, but it was worth it at the end.”

Jackson and Brooklyn are each three-sport athletes. Jackson is the quarterback on the football team in the fall and a member of the track team (he competes in 300 hurdles and two relays) in the spring, while Brooklyn plays softball.

But it’s wrestling where the two share their greatest bond athletically.

Jackson started getting involved in the sport when was around elementary school age, and Brooklyn would tag along to practices.

Along the way, she became intrigued enough to try wrestling herself.

“I liked being able to know that I could defend myself and take care of myself in different ways,” she said. “To be able to stand up for myself.”

Brooklyn said she stopped wrestling competitively around sixth grade because there weren’t opportunities for girls to compete only against each other, but that changed when a girls-only division was added to the MHSAA Tournament with the 2021-22 season.

With both able to compete in high school, at-home workouts intensified. The two regularly train against each other on a mat in their basement, where technique is honed and toughness is sharpened.

“She pushes me a lot,” Jackson said.

Both also learn from each other’s experiences.

“I feel like watching him made me more motivated to do it,” Brooklyn said. “He’s taught me a lot of technique that I wouldn’t have known from his past experiences and coach.”

Added Jackson: “I’ve learned from her matches.”

This week has actually presented a rarity for both in that they’ve had time off.

With wrestling ending and spring sports not officially opening practice until Monday, the two haven’t had practices and competitions.

That’ll change next week when they go their separate ways with Jackson to track practice and Brooklyn joining the softball squad, and they’ll focus on those sports for the rest of the school year.

But with two more years of eligibility left and all-state finishes in wrestling already, the sky is the limit for the next two years in that sport for both.

With that in mind, the questions to Dad about who would win a match are likely only getting started.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTO Southgate Anderson twins Brooklyn, left, and Jackson Sage both placed at this season’s Wrestling Individual Finals. (Photo courtesy of the Sage family.)