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.)

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.)