By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
DAVISON — The sense of excitement is palpable when Brenden McRill recalls one of the biggest adrenaline rushes he's had on a football field.
He's in his third year as Davison's starting quarterback, but it's the one time he got to play on the other side of the ball that makes McRill really light up.
Although he's put up impressive numbers at the game's most glamorous position, the opportunity to make eight tackles as a safety in a first-round playoff loss to Lapeer last season was about as fun as it gets for McRill.
"Oh, it felt great," he said. "I was so excited for that, because I hadn't played defense since my freshman year. I was ready to go out there and hit somebody."
Spoken like a true ... wrestler.
The willingness to absorb punishment is considered a barometer of toughness for a quarterback, and McRill is certainly willing to do that for the good of the team. Most quarterbacks, however, don't get as hyped as McRill to deliver a blow.
But he isn't wired like most quarterbacks, which is why Davison coach Kyle Zimmerman could confidently add the following hash tag to a Twitter post about McRill: #MyQBIsTougherThanYours.
The groundwork for McRill's unique makeup was forged on the wrestling mats of the Davison youth program and fine-tuned at the high school level under the guidance of Roy Hall, who has coached the Cardinals to six MHSAA team championships and four runner-up finishes since 2000.
McRill was the MHSAA Division 1 champion at 189 pounds as a junior.
"It definitely makes me different, because I love to hit," McRill said of his wrestling background. "If I'm near the sideline and see a guy, I'm going for the hit; I'm not sliding. That aggressiveness and toughness has definitely helped me."
While McRill is as tough as they come, Zimmerman is reluctant to have his quarterback playing both ways on a regular basis.
"To be honest, he probably should play defense," Zimmerman said. "He's one of our best defenders. At the first day of practice, everybody does drills to simulate stuff. He's lights-out. Anything he does on a football field, he's going to excel at. He's played end for us, he's played linebacker, he's played safety, he's played quarterback.
"We've got other guys we know can play. You know it's a huge drop-off if you put yourself in a position where you could lose someone. If you see the quarterback out there, people are going to be attacking him, trying to tire him. We want him to play at a high level on offense."
And that he does.
McRill received honorable mention on The Associated Press' Division 1-2 all-state team last season as a dual-threat quarterback. As a passer, he was 68-for-136 for 1,306 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran 161 times for 642 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In the 2016 opener against Saginaw Arthur Hill, McRill was 3-for-5 for 52 yards and two touchdowns passing to go with five carries for 27 yards and a touchdown in the first half of a 62-12 rout of the Lumberjacks.
The mission for McRill and his teammates is to get Davison back on the state high school football map. The Cardinals made the MHSAA playoffs seven straight years from 2002-08, reaching the Semifinals three times and going 65-19 during that span. In the seven years that followed, Davison went 33-33 and made the playoffs three times.
"We had three starting sophomores that first game my sophomore year," McRill said. "There was me, offensive tackle Zach Slezak, who at the time played defense, and Corran Thornton, who started at defensive end. We started it together. Our senior year, we want to make it our best and have one of the best years Davison's ever had."
On the wrestling mat, McRill knows what it's like to compete at a high level.
McRill added his name to the list of individual MHSAA champions coached by Hall when he won the Division 1 title at 189 pounds with an overtime decision over previously unbeaten Nicholas May of Kalamazoo Loy Norrix. McRill was fifth at 152 as a freshman and third at 160 as a sophomore.
"Going into high school, I planned to win it right away my freshman year," said McRill, whose only blemishes on a 38-2 junior record were against MHSAA champions. "Just with that legacy and Coach Hall's style, you're expected to win. You're working as hard as you can. ... It felt real good to get that out of the way."
He helped Davison reach the MHSAA Division 1 Team Finals in 2014 and 2016, with a semifinal appearance in between in 2015. Each of the last four years, however, Davison has lost to the eventual champion.
"It's kind of upsetting, but it will make us hold each other more accountable that we need to finish this year," McRill said. "We need to win. We've got a lot of guys back and some incoming freshmen who are ranked guys and very good. So I'm very excited for this team coming up."
McRill does what he can to maintain his sharpness as a wrestler, but he devotes most of his attention to football over the summer.
"I try to get a couple of drills in right now when the season's going," he said. "When we get to the playoffs, I try to stay off it, focus on football and stay healthy for that. Right after football, I try to get a couple days off and get ready for wrestling. I try to train hard, because I know I have a lot of catching up to do."
McRill doesn't compete in the national wrestling tournaments that many of his competitors do over the summer, but that hasn't hurt his exposure to college scouts. He is weighing offers from Central Michigan, University of Michigan and West Virginia.
Once football and wrestling seasons conclude, McRill said he may return for one final season on the baseball diamond. He grew up playing baseball, but cut back on it once he realized his college future was likely to be in football or wrestling.
He didn't play baseball as a freshman, because he was working to win the starting quarterback job the following fall. McRill was called up to the varsity baseball team as a sophomore after throwing a no-hitter on the junior varsity team.
"I think I'm going to come out my senior year," he said. "We've got a great group of guys in baseball, too. That's one that people kind of sleep on, but we could come up with something in baseball."
In the meantime, the arm that threw a no-hitter for the JV baseball team will be firing touchdown passes for a football team that could have a special season.
"The first day I saw Brenden, I knew who my quarterback was from how he competed and how he threw," said Zimmerman, whose first year at Davison was McRill's sophomore season.
"We were probably going to take our lumps early, but it's going to pay off in the long run. He was steady his sophomore year, he was good last year and he's going to explode this year."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. 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) Davison quarterback Brenden McRill lines up over center during his team's game last season against Saginaw. (Middle) McRill holds up his weight's bracket sheet after winning the Division 1 title at 189 pounds last winter. (Below) McRill looks to lock up during his championship match. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
KALAMAZOO – There’s nothing quite like the roar of a crowd after your team has clinched an MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals title.
That’s true whether it’s for title No. 1, or, in the case of Casey Engle and his Lowell teammates Saturday, for their program’s 11th-straight Division 2 championship.
“It’s unreal,” Engle said. “It’s something I look forward to every year.”
Lowell extended its record run of wrestling team titles by defeating Freeland 49-21 in the Division 2 Final at Wings Events Center.
The Red Arrows joined the Grosse Pointe South (1976-86) and Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett (1980-90) girls tennis programs in winning 11 straight Finals titles. Only East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving, winning 15 straight from 1948-62, and Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice boys lacrosse – with 13 straight from 2005-17 – have longer Finals championship streaks in Lower Peninsula or statewide competition.
“I mean, it’s possible (to reach 15),” said sophomore Jarrett Smith, whose pin at 106 pounds clinched the title. “It’s hard to predict that far, four years into the future. We’re losing some key guys, but we graduated 14 last year, five this year, so we’re returning some firepower.”
Lowell is always returning firepower, and it’s consistently adding it, too, giving new waves of Red Arrows the chance to raise a wooden mitten.
That’s why for coach RJ Boudro, each title remains just as sweet as the last.
“Why would it get old?” said Boudro, who has been in charge for 10 of those titles. “Look at the crowd. When I first walked in here, I looked up, and you see that we have more fans here than anybody else, and that’s what it’s about. Next year will be fun, too. When you can still bring crowds in and you can do it 11 years in a row, there’s more to that than just winning. If it was just about winning, why else would they come? They would probably think it was a foregone conclusion. They love the kids; they love the community.”
One could forgive an outsider for believing it’s a foregone conclusion when Lowell takes the mat for the Division 2 postseason, as it’s won the Final by more than 20 points in each of the past five seasons and in seven of its 11 straight championship victories.
So to avoid that feeling creeping into his wrestling room, Boudro makes it clear the Red Arrows’ responsibility isn’t just to win on the mat, but to strive for something bigger.
“We’re not doing it to just win state championships,” Boudro said. “We’re trying to find out who we are, we’re trying to be better men, better women, better coaches. So, it’s not just about winning, it’s about being a better person. Whether I’m a coach or a kid, just trying to find a way to be better. When you’re doing that all the time, you get better, but you feel like you have a purpose. Every single guy on the team feels like they have a purpose, and that’s really important.”
Just 14 wrestlers can step onto the mat in a single dual, and the same number is the max a team can enter into the individual postseason, so accomplishing that can sometimes be as tough as anything else for Lowell wrestlers, and certainly helps motivate them throughout the season – foregone conclusions or not.
“One of our signs up there I saw, it says, ‘Tradition never graduates,’ and it’s true,” Smith said. “We just keep the kids coming. Even our B Team, C Team are competing at the highest level. At the beginning of Districts, we had 17 ranked guys, and you can only send 14. So we have just great partners all around.”
Freeland, meanwhile, was making its first appearance in a Final, after getting to the Quarterfinals for the third time in program history.
“Outstanding. Outstanding. They’ve been giving their all every match,” Freeland coach Scott VanLuven said. “They’ve been doing it all year. We beat Brighton, we weren’t supposed to. We beat (Bay City) John Glenn in our conference, then we had to beat them again in our District Final when we weren’t supposed to. No one gave us really a chance down here, I think. But they believed, and they did well.”
The Falcons (25-3) still had a shot with three matches to go, trailing 31-21. But Smith put a quick end to that with his pin at 106, and that was followed by a pair of pins from Cole and Carter Cichocki at 113 and 120, respectively.
Of the Arrows’ nine wins in the dual, eight came by either pin or technical fall, as Jackson Blum (138), Jared Boone (165) and Engle (190) also won by pinfall. Logan Dawson (132) and Owen Segorski (144) each won by tech. Cody Foss (126) opened the dual with a win by decision for Lowell (22-3).
Fabian Facundo (150) and Bringham Smith (285) each won by pin for Freeland, while Noah Graham (157), Gibson Shepard (175) and Elijah Murphy (215) all won by decision.
PHOTOS (Top) Lowell’s Cole Cichocki, left, lines up against Freeland’s Michael Wilson at 113 pounds Saturday. (Middle) The Falcons’ Elijah Murphy, left, locks up Lowell’s Ari McFarland at 215. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)