By: Scott Keyes
Breaking it down
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That's the phrase that best describes the high school wrestling landscape in the state of Michigan nowadays.
Faces change in lineups, state champions graduate and move on to college wrestling, but a handful of programs in the state continue to be the dominant forces in the state.
February is almost here, and the fun will begin when the Michigan High School Athletic Association team and individual state tournaments start.
I've been covering the sport of wrestling in the state for 17 years now, and this is my favorite time of the year. And my favorite state tournament is the team finals, which will take place February 22 and 23 at Battle Creek's Kellogg Arena.
Kellogg Arena is the perfect venue to bring together 32 communities from around the state for two days of wrestling, which will crown four champions.
In the past three or four years, four programs have walked away with plenty of hardware and have labeled their programs as dynasties, or as dynasties in the making.
In Division 1, Detroit Catholic Central has won two of the past three state championships, and in the one that the Shamrocks didn't win, they finished second to Oxford in a match that went down to the last weight class.
In Division 2, St. Johns has made it look easy winning the past three state titles, while Richmond has done the same in Division 3, bringing home three straight state championship trophies.
And in Division 4, coach Scott Marry and the Hudson Tigers are on the verge of tying the great Davison team of the mid-2000s, a team that was led by NCAA champions Brent Metcalf, Jon Reader, and Paul Donahoe, and won five straight state titles.
All four of these teams look good to win again in a month. Detroit Catholic Central has been ranked No. 1 all year, and the same can be said for St. Johns and Hudson.
The only returning state champion that is not ranked No. 1 is Richmond. The Blue Devils are No. 2 to Dundee – a team that has finished runner-up in Division 3 in four of the past five years.
In Division 1, I can't bet against coach Mitch Hancock and his Detroit Catholic Central Shamrocks. This team is loaded with talent, with the likes of Ken Bade, Malik Amine, Logan Marcicki, Drew Garcia, and Bob Coe. The only team that I think may be able to beat DCC is Davison. The Shamrocks have already beaten coach Roy Hall and his Cardinals in an assembly dual at DCC that rocked, thanks to a full house. I also like Hartland, which looked solid in beating Lowell in a dual earlier this month, but this division is shaping up to be a two-horse race between DCC and Davison.
With five seniors who will continue their wrestling at the college level in the Big Ten, this may be the easiest pick of all four Divisions. St. Johns has something special going on, and the Redwings are as strong as ever with Jacob Schmitt (Northwestern), Brant Schafer (Indiana), Ben Whitford (Michigan), Josh Pennell (Michigan State) and Payne Hayden (Michigan) leading the way. Throw in underclassmen Ian Parker, Zac Hall, and Logan Massa, and that's eight weight classes that are almost unstoppable. The only thing that could derail this runaway train are injuries and illness, two things that have hurt the team this year.
Division 3 could be the most entertaining division when the eight qualifying teams hit Kellogg Arena. Three-time defending Richmond and Dundee are definitely the favorites, but teams like Whitehall and Birch Run are also very good. And there are other good teams in the division like Shelby, Allendale, and Grand Rapids Catholic Central. As is true every year, some of those teams will be knocked off in districts, while other less-worthy teams will advance to the finals. There could be upsets in this division, but I feel Dundee is going to break its string of runner-up finishes and win. The Vikings have placed second in four of the past five years but should win their first state title since the 2007 season.
Hudson is a small town some 40 miles south of Jackson. Every year in late February, nearly the whole town migrates to Battle Creek to cheer on its Tigers. That will happen again this year, and I do believe Hudson will match that storied Davison team of last decade and win its fifth straight title. With wrestlers like Cole Weaver, Roddy Hamdan, Issac Dussea, and Zach Rieger, this Hudson team is as strong as ever. However, don't count out a New Lothrop team that may be just as talented. Josh Wendling, Jake Perrin, and Taylor Krupp are wrestlers who can go toe-to-toe with the Tigers.
No matter who wins, my advice is to get to Kellogg Arena and experience this event for at least one day. From the Grand Marches before each round, to watching a wrestler who may not be wrestling the following week in the individual finals, but who could be the difference between winning or going home, there is no better drama. And the noise that the crowds generate is deafening – it is excitement at its best!
And there is possible good news in the future. Rumor has it that this may be increased to a 16-team tournament per division in the near future, adding another round of wrestling and excitement.