By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
Croswell-Lexington wrestling coach Joe Lilly saw championship potential in Collin Lieber when he was in sixth grade.
Donnie Corby, the best to ever come through the Cros-Lex program by any metric – for now anyway – saw it, too.
The rest of the state had to wait until Lieber’s freshman season in 2013-14, when he entered the MHSAA tournament with a single loss and made a run to the 135-pound Division 2 title match before losing against DeWitt’s Austin Melton.
It was at that point Lieber himself realized he had the ability to reach his goal of becoming an MHSAA Finals champion, something that seemed more likely than not after such an impressive start.
As he starts his senior season, however, that individual championship still remains unchecked on Lieber’s list.
“It was funny, because I really didn’t know what to expect going into the state tournament (as a freshman), and I really didn’t think I was that good,” Lieber said. “I remember waking up that morning thinking, ‘I might be a state champ today.’ Then going into sophomore year, losing in the semifinals, that was hard. Then last year (in the finals) in overtime, that was rough.”
Lieber is among the state’s best wrestlers, ranked No. 3 across all divisions by Michigan Grappler at 171 pounds. He has a career record of 165-7 and three top-three Finals finishes to his name. In 2015, he was third at 152 pounds in Division 3, and in 2016, he was second at the same weight.
He has signed to wrestle at Central Michigan University, the same place Corby put together an impressive career by qualifying for the NCAA tournament three times and winning one Mid-American Conference championship. With 35 more wins, Lieber will unseat Corby as the all-time wins leader at Cros-Lex.
“He’s gonna kill me,” said Corby, who is now an assistant wrestling coach at the University of Northern Colorado. “He’s gonna kill me. I knew that freshman year. If anybody could do it, I want it to be Collin.”
Corby is not only Cros-Lex’s all-time wins leader, he’s also its only MHSAA Finals champion, having won in 2008. Like Lieber, he placed second as a junior, something he used as motivation for his title-winning senior year.
Lieber is hoping that same driving force can help him replicate Corby’s senior success.
“It’s just more motivating that I lost,” he said. “Because now it’s like I have to win states at least once.”
Lieber’s loss in the 2016 title match came with added heartache. After a hard-fought 6 minutes that left Lieber and Dundee’s Sean Sterling tied at 2, it was Sterling who was able to get a takedown in overtime to win the match. It not only handed Lieber his second loss in a Finals title match, but also ended his unbeaten season (54-0).
“He was better at takedowns than me. I was better at top/bottom,” Lieber said. “I was really tired, too. I should have conditioned more last year. I don’t know how much time was left in overtime, but I was kind of banking on getting to double overtime because I wanted to get to top/bottom.
“The whole year, I’m going to keep thinking about that match, over and over again.”
It was a crushing loss, one that was felt off the mat, as well.
“It was devastating,” Lilly said. “Devastating. Just because I know what he’s put in, and what his desires and goals are, and ours as coaches have been the same for him. Once you get a kid like Collin, that knows what his goals are and knows where he wants to be, you push him on a regular basis to meet that. Then you’re there – we were in the same boat, just crushed. I had no idea what to say to him.”
Despite the losses at the highest level, losing is not something Lieber has had to deal with much during his wrestling career. He began wrestling at 6 years old and won a state championship that year.
“I hated losing,” he said. “I would always cry when I lost.”
The crying has stopped, but the desire to win has not. If anything, this season, it has intensified.
“I’ve sure seen so far this year in the practice room and running that it’s a step up,” Lilly said. “He’s not a kid that gives into pressure; he thrives on it. He loves it. I watch him warm up for big matches, and the routine is the same. I never notice him getting anxious or uncomfortable. He keeps it in real well.”
Lieber has focused on being better conditioned this season, and said that wrestling at 171, a weight that is more natural for him, should help.
“I think not cutting weight will honestly help me a lot, because I won’t be as tired,” he said. “I’ll be able to condition a lot better in practice. I’ll be happier. I’ll want to come in more. I’ve been lifting a lot more, too.”
Lieber feels confident heading into the season. There’s pressure to reach the top of the podium, of course, but he said he feels less of it thanks to having his college decision out of the way. He’s proud, he said, of what he has accomplished to this point in his high school career. Now he simply wants to win for himself and those who have helped him get to this point.
Lilly wants it for him as well. He said that when Lieber was in sixth grade, he had pegged him as the program’s next Corby – a wrestler with the tools to win an MHSAA Finals title. Even without a championship, Lieber has proven his coach to be correct.
“I keep telling him that to be at the state tournament is such an accomplishment,” Lilly said. “Then to be there three years in a row and place, and now we’re looking to go in his senior year, it’s a heck of an accomplishment. You’re in an elite group to begin with.
“So that has comfort for me. I’m hoping it has a burning desire in him to say, ‘I’m going to win it this year.’”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Croswell-Lexington’s Collin Lieber (top) wrestles Dundee’s Sean Sterling during last season’s Division 3 championship match at 152 pounds. (Middle) Lieber warms up before his match at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)