Gaylord Marching Again Into Contention

January 6, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD – Gaylord had reason to celebrate over the holidays.

The Blue Devils, ranked No. 6 in Division 2 by Michigan Grappler and the Michigan Wrestling Association in their pre-holiday wrestling poll, ushered in 2016 with strong showings in the Tournament of Champions at Goodrich and the Grand Ledge Invitational.

Gaylord placed second to No. 2 St. Johns, and finished five points ahead of No. 5 Goodrich, in last Wednesday's loaded 16-team field at Goodrich.

Over the weekend at Grand Ledge, Gaylord edged No. 3 Eaton Rapids 37-36 despite missing three starters.

The results left head coach Jerry LaJoie feeling quite pleased with how his team is progressing.

"If we can keep everyone together, and healthy, we could make a nice push by the end of the year," he said.

The Blue Devils advanced to the Division 2 Semifinals a year ago in the MHSAA team competition. After beating Flint Kearsley in the Quarterfinals, Gaylord fell to eventual champion Lowell. Lowell then downed Eaton Rapids for the title.

LaJoie returned several starters off that Final Four squad, including his son Dominic, a two-time individual MHSAA champion.

Dominic LaJoie, currently 20-0, is ranked No. 1 in the state at 119 pounds. Jerry LaJoie said his son's mental makeup on the mat has helped propel him to the top.

"He analyzes everything," Jerry LaJoie said. "He's a thinker. If something doesn't go right, like a technique, he works (to correct it). He's meticulous. And he's one of the hardest workers in the room. It’s like World War III watching him and (training partner) Jon Martin in practice."

Then again, practice makes perfect, right? That's been the case, so far, for LaJoie under his father's tutelage.

"I’m always striving for state championships," Dominic LaJoie said. “That’s my goal."

LaJoie is not the only standout on the squad – a fact not lost on the junior.

"This is the best team I've been on," he said.

LaJoie is one of six Blue Devils ranked in Division 2. He’s joined by Martin, No. 1 at 130 pounds; Derek Giallombardo No. 2 at 103; Trevor Giallombardo No. 3 at 112; Shane Foster No. 5 at 215; and Tim Roney No. 9 at 285. Foster and Roney missed the tournament at Grand Ledge with “nagging” injuries.

"I don't want the injuries to become an issue when we get towards the end of the year," Jerry LaJoie said. "We need to let them heal up."

Foster, an Individual Finals qualifier a year ago, was injured in leading the Blue Devils to a football playoff berth. He's been in and out of the lineup, finishing second in the Marquette Challenge and Tournament of Champions.

An unsung hero on the team is captain Tristan Blanzy at 152 pounds.

"He's keeping everyone together, leading by example," Jerry LaJoie said. "He's not one of the stars. He's just a kid who has come up through the ranks and worked hard for everything (he's achieved). He's done it the old school way."

So what's the strength of this team? LaJoie doesn't hesitate in answering that question.

"We're really good on our feet," he said. "We score a lot of takedowns. We're aggressive."

LaJoie is in his 22nd season as Blue Devils coach. He arrived at a time when rival Ray Arthur had the Petoskey program rolling.

"We had some good teams, and Ray kept knocking us off," LaJoie said. "Ray is the guy who got me up every morning to figure out how to beat him."

Arthur, who stepped down in 2010 after 31 seasons, led the Northmen to 685 dual meets wins, sixth all-time in MHSAA history. His 1996 team won the Division 2 championship.

He set the bar high for LaJoie and the Blue Devils, who have now taken over as the perennial powerhouse in the Big North Conference.

"If it wasn't for him (Arthur), I don't think we would be as good as we are," LaJoie admitted.

Christian Wilson, Gaylord athletic director, said LaJoie spends countless hours developing his program –  from the varsity and junior varsity teams at the high school to the youth programs.

"There's no secret to our success," Wilson said. "It's the time and dedication that he's (LaJoie) put into it, along with all of our wrestling assistants. They're often here from the time school gets out until 9 or 10 at night working with kids.

"Wrestling is one of those sports where you can't hide. The cream rises to the top. It's something they've put a lot of effort into."

Wilson said LaJoie is a strong motivator, too.

"He relates well to all the kids," he said. "The kids want to wrestle for him. They want to do well for him. His practices are not easy, but they know in order to compete they have to put the time in (training). He has high expectations, and those kids reach for it."

How high can they reach? That question will be answered in the weeks ahead, but LaJoie believes anything is possible.

"I think we can make a run if we can stay healthy and get a few breaks along the way," he said. "(Top-ranked) Lowell and St. Johns are tough teams, but a lot can happen between now and then."

Especially for a team trending up.

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] 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 wrestling team takes part in the pre-match march before last season’s Division 2 Quarterfinals at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) Jon Martin (top) wraps up Dakotah Leland of Flint Kearsley during their match at 130 pounds. (Below) Coach Jerry LaJoie is in his 22nd season leading the program. (Click for more photos from 

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.)