Finals Qualifiers Show Strength of Muskegon Catholic Central's Gains on Mat

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 2, 2023

Muskegon Catholic Central is the smallest wrestling school in Muskegon County, with just 124 students in the high school.

West MichiganIt also happens to be the only school in the county with two individual Regional champions in senior David Hill (157 pounds) and junior Easten Cook (165 pounds), who hope to add all-state honors to their resume when they compete at the MHSAA Individual Finals on Friday and Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.

Now, don’t expect wrestling to usurp football as the sport of choice at MCC – which with 12 state titles during the playoff era is behind only now-closed Farmington Hills Harrison’s 13 championships – but throw in another Finals qualifier in senior Zach Michael (175) and the Crusaders grapplers boast three headed to Ford Field, not bad for a school which had only four wrestlers in the entire program in 2019.

“It’s been a great year for our program and our school, and we’re having a blast,” said fifth-year MCC coach Barry Kieft, who is assisted by PJ Mitchell.

“Those three state qualifiers are all stud football players. That sends a great message to the younger kids that wrestling will make you better on the football field.”

Hill was a star running back for the Crusaders’ Division 6 District finalist football team this fall, who had to get over a stigma to become a star on the mat.

“I used to be a germaphobe, so it’s hard to believe I even started wrestling,” said Hill, who is 32-7 this season and has 107 career wins. “But at some point, something changed. I love the independent part of it. You have to go out there and do it; you can’t blame anything on other people.”

Muskegon Catholic Central wrestling coach Barry Kieft. Hill, the son of former Muskegon Reeths-Puffer all-state running back DeMarkeo Hill, who led the Rockets to the Class A championship in 1992 and tragically died of brain cancer five years ago at the age of 44, calls his dad his athletic hero and his inspiration before every match.

David Hill made short work of the field at 157 pounds at the Feb. 11 Division 4 Regional at Ithaca, including a pin at the 1:00 mark in the championship match.

This will be his second appearance at the Individual Finals, after placing fourth at Regionals last year. He believes his experience, speed and unorthodox style give him a shot at the title.

“I have a unique style, that’s for sure,” said Hill, a three-sport athlete who also runs track in the spring. “My coaches don’t know what to say to me because a lot of what I do isn’t conventional wrestling moves. So they just say, ‘Go out there and wrestle like David Hill.’”

Cook, meanwhile, is a conventional tactician at 165, the next weight class up from Hill.

Cook, a starting guard and linebacker on the football field, embraces the mental and physical challenges of wrestling.

“I think my biggest strength is my mental preparation and thinking things through,” said Cook, who got started in the sport in fifth grade when he was hanging around his older brother and now-MCC assistant coach, Aiden Cook. “I like the hardships that come with wrestling and seeing if you are strong enough to overcome it.”

Easten Cook, who as his name suggests, loves to experiment with different foods (right now, he and Hill eat a small granola bar dipped in honey before each match), won his Regional championship match 9-4.

Cook sports his team’s best record at 37-7, with city, District and Regional titles. He has 82 career wins.

The third member of the Crusaders’ Finals trio is Michael, who has a 32-9 season record and 89 career wins.

In addition to the three qualifiers, MCC also had two wrestlers eclipse the 20-win plateau this season in juniors Andrew Rosema (138) and Sawyer Hanson (190).

That additional depth nearly pushed the Crusaders to a team District championship Feb. 8. MCC downed Holton, 52-18, in the District Semifinal, before a narrow loss to Ravenna, 42-36, in the championship match.

Kieft said his team’s three Finals qualifiers are all ultra-competitive and have pushed each other to greater heights.

“They just pound each other in practice, sometimes too much,” Kieft said with a laugh, thinking of some of the trio’s practice battles in the wrestling room above MCC’s James Morse Jr. auxiliary gymnasium. “We had to go to 30-second rounds when they practice because if they go 1 minute, it gets too intense.”

Kieft said another reason for his team’s postseason success is a regular season of competing against larger schools.

Kieft, 71, has also been an assistant football and baseball coach at MCC in recent years. He recently decided to retire from coaching those two sports, but plans to continue leading the wrestling program.

“People ask me all the time: “Don’t you want to be in Florida during the winter?’,” said Kieft, who was an assistant wrestling coach at Fruitport in the 1990s. “No, I love doing this. I’ve been down there in the sun and all that, but I miss this. I enjoy being with the wrestling kids.”

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Easten Cook’s arm is raised in victory after a match this season. (Middle) Muskegon Catholic Central wrestling coach Barry Kieft. (Below) David Hill works to establish control during a match against Whitehall. (Photos courtesy of Karen Kieft.)

Lowell Enters Another Elite Group of Champs with 11th-Straight Finals Win

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

February 24, 2024

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.

The Falcons’ Elijah Murphy, left, locks up Lowell’s Ari McFarland at 215. 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.

Click for full results.

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.)