The first step is the toughest

KALAMAZOO — In my 30-plus years of covering high school sports for Leader Publications, I have rarely seen such a turnaround when it came to a program.

I can count on one hand the teams that have gone from lackluster to a champions in a short period of time.

Right off the top of my head there is the Edwardsburg football program, that was once the team that everyone wanted to play on homecoming to a team playing for a state championship at Ford Field in Detroit.

And then there is the Dowagiac wrestling team, what went from not filling all 14 weight classes to wrestling in the Division 3 state quarterfinals Friday afternoon in Kalamazoo.

What a turnaround Colin Burandt and his staff have done with the Chieftains, who not only have shown improvement each of the past three seasons, but have laid the foundation for years to come.

Dowagiac can be proud of its accomplishments this year.

The Chieftains finished second in the extremely tough Wolverine Conference behind powerhouse Edwardsburg.

Dowagiac won its first district title since 2015 and its first regional championship since 2004.

The latter earned the Chieftains a spot in the state finals, which this year moved back to southwest Michigan.

We all would have liked a better outcome on Friday, but like the old saying goes, “the first step is always the hardest.”

I have to admit, I was a bit concerned when Chippewa Hills got out to a 29-0 start.

After all, I had just watched Detroit Catholic Central blanked its opponent on the same mat in the Division 1 quarterfinals.

I learned a long time ago that Dowagiac kids are tough and they have a lot of pride.

That pride came shining through as the Chieftains won four straight bouts, three of which by pins, to make it a 29-21 match with three to go.

Deny White wrestled his heart out before losing an 8-7 decision that really sealed the deal for the Warriors.

Another match that really made me proud to say I was covering Dowagiac came at 130 pounds when senior Kody Walker, who weighed in at 119, stepped on the mat and defeated Bray Haynes 10-4.

Walker showed the heart of a Chieftain when he went to battle with one of the state’s top wrestlers at 125 pounds.

So now that Dowagiac has taken that first step, it is up to the kids who are returning to the team next season to step up their game.

Like Burandt said, now they understand what it is all about and what it takes to wrestle at that level consistently.

I know that Burandt and his staff are ready to accept that challenge and I would bet my life that the Chieftains are two.

After all, Dowagiac had just four seniors in the lineup against Chippewa Hills, and only two of them wrestled the entire season for the Chieftains.

Better things are ahead for this program and I cannot wait to see how it develops.

Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at scott.novak@leaderpub.com.

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