DETROIT – Eliana Bommarito will typically have the advantage in strength anytime she steps on the wrestling mat against another female.
At Saturday’s Individual Wrestling Finals, the Hartland senior drew strength from the crowd at Ford Field as girls joined the boys on the big stage for the first time in history.
Bommarito earned a fall over Belding freshman Madasyn Frisbie in 3:53 in the 255-pound title match to become a four-time state champion.
“I’m so proud. It means, like, we’re being recognized,” said Bommarito, who was 8-0 in matches against girls this season. “There’s actually more girls joining, and this will only encourage more and more females to start wrestling and know that they have a chance to be recognized for it. It’s just great that I got to see that my last year.”
Bommarito said she picked up wrestling about six years ago. She’s been a state champion more than half that time.
The last three years, she won state titles through the Michigan Wrestling Association. This season, a girls wrestling tournament was sponsored by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, so Bommarito got the chance to perform in front of a much larger crowd that in previous years.
Frisbie (7-1) made Bommarito work a bit. None of the previous postseason matches in her career went beyond the first period, but this one lasted nearly two.
“I rely a lot on my upper-body strength. I always get discouraged when I get in a match and I don’t have that (advantage). But that’s definitely something that I have the majority of the time,” Bommarito said. “Going to that second period, I was like, ‘She’s pretty good. It’s going to work up my cardio a bit for this match, so I’ve got to start relying on cardio, too.’
“This is great. It’s like the first time in history for women (to wrestle alongside the boys at the Finals), in at least Michigan. I feel like I can encourage more females to want to join wrestling.”
Champion: Emme Hicks, Saline, Jr. (10-0)
Fall, 5:50, over Tricia Pyrzewski, Gladwin, Soph. (13-3)
Hicks earned her third state title in as many high school seasons with the hard-fought victory over Pyrzewski.
Hicks picked up wrestling as a second-grader nine years ago.
“I know that I’ve put in more work than anybody else. I live on the mat, I feel some days. I trust in my coaches and my hard work,” she said.
“This just felt amazing to be recognized by so many people as being equal as the guys who wrestle. Having this opportunity, it’s just amazing.”
Champion: Sky Langewicz, Algonac, Fr. (19-0)
Decision, 3-0, over Sunni LaFond, Gaylord, Fr. (32-9)
In the lone Finals match pitting two freshmen, Langewicz shook off some nerves and recorded a hard-earned victory.
Langewicz said she’d been preparing all season for this moment, and once she scored a takedown, the rest took care of itself.
“It was scary at first – I was pretty nervous, but as soon as the whistle blew, the nerves went away and I just felt in the moment,” she said. “The whole world disappeared, and I didn’t feel like there was any pressure. It felt amazing.”
Sophomore Sydney Thompson, Eaton Rapids, Soph. (20-6)
Decision, 7-1, over Gabby Motz, Laingsburg, Sr. (19-5)
Thompson noticed quite the difference in atmosphere between the girls Finals last year and this weekend’s event at Ford Field. Also, she didn’t even place last year and this time she took home the state title.
“I worked hard, I put in the work, I did what needed to be done,” she said. “I did what (most) people weren’t willing to do: Staying after practice, practicing on weekends, working one-on-one with coaches and my dad and stuff. Just working hard.
“I didn’t waver. I knew it was going to pay off. I knew that if I worked hard, it would beat anyone’s talent when they didn’t work hard, so I knew I would come out on top.”
Margaret Buurma, Fowlerville, Fr. (14-2)
Decision, 9-6, over Kendra Vickory, Goodrich, Soph. (6-2)
Buurma trailed later in the match against Vickory but said she kept fighting to pull out the victory on the big stage.
Buurma said she’s been wrestling since she was 3 or 4 years old, but this environment was different than anything she had ever experienced.
“The experience was definitely amazing – one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” she said. “It was very nerve-racking going out there in front of all the people, but in the end it’s the same rules, same mat.”
Angelina Pena, Milan, Soph. (8-0)
Fall, 5:56, over Lola Barkby, Sturgis, Fr. (8-3)
Pena believes that wrestling against boys helps her when it’s time to take the mat against a girl. At the same time, she’s very proud of the fact that girls now have an equal platform as boys at the Finals.
“It really means a lot to me,” said Pena, who won a second-straight state title. “I know a lot of my girl wrestling friends say the same thing because you used to hear boys say, ‘Oh, girls wrestling is so easy. I could totally win that.’ We get the same chance as guys do.”
Pena’s brother, Milan junior Peter Pena, finished runner-up at 140 pounds in Division 3 moments after she captured the championship.
Hannah Palise, Warren Mott, Sr. (22-1)
Decision, 6-3, over Ryen Allen, Goodrich, Soph. (6-1)
Palise closed her high school wrestling career in grand fashion, rallying past Allen for her first title.
Palise knew she needed a takedown and nearfall to pull out the victory. Achieving her goal in front of a large crowd in the big venue made it all the more memorable, she said.
“It was awesome – like, the whole stands, everything,” she said. “It made it more meaningful that everybody could come, that I knew that were supporting me.”
Tyler Swanigan, South Lyon East, Soph. (9-0)
Decision, SV-1 8-6, over Faith Blackburn, Clinton, Soph. (23-2)
At several moments during her Finals match, it appeared Swanigan could have given up. Her shoulder joints were bending so much, it seemed as though they were made of rubber bands.
“I’m a varsity cheerleader,” the flexible Swanigan said in laughter after her dramatic, extra-time victory.
Swanigan bent but didn’t break. The moment she scored a takedown in the extra period, she realized that she’d realized a dream.
“Definitely the thoughts of winning my first state title. … I definitely wanted this really bad,” she said.
Danni Swihart, Hanover-Horton, Jr. (20-4)
Inj. Def., 5:01, over Kennedy Edson, Lawrence, Jr. (14-1)
Swihart said she picked up wrestling in second or third grade. All the hard work paid off.
In her first Finals appearance, Swihart captured the championship and did so on the biggest stage the girls have been on.
“Oh, it was just glorious,” she said. “I mean, coming out here, working so hard during the season, having the opportunity to be in the Finals, let alone first time in girls history and at Ford Field, it was just an outstanding feeling.
“And if I could, I would play it over and over again,” she added with a chuckle.
Emma Pendell, Montague, Soph. (19-6)
Decision, TB-1 2-1, over Isabel Worthing, East Jackson, Sr. (13-5)
Pendell is Montague’s first girls wrestling state champion, and she’s also her school’s first Finals champ in the sport since 1989.
She placed seventh in the state last year, when she dual-sported in wrestling and basketball during the winter.
“My main reason for (picking up wrestling) was college opportunities, but after like two years, I just fell in love with it. Now, I can’t imagine not doing it,” she said.
Mishell Rebisch, Romeo, Soph. (8-0)
Fall, 3:55, over Teairah Elsemann, Saline, Jr., (6-2)
Rebisch admitted to feeling a little pressure with so many eyes on her during her Finals match against Elsemann. She knew when it was time to turn the pressure up on her opponent, however, and she scored a pinfall late in the second period.
Rebisch captured her first title after finishing runner-up last season.
“Definitely, there was so much more mats here – probably like five times as many mats as there was last year. Big stadium – a lot bigger stadium,” she said. “It felt a lot louder. In some ways, it felt like more pressure, probably because so many people were watching. I was excited.”
Lydia Krauss, Boyne City, Sr., (24-0)
Major decision, 13-2, over Amarisa Manuel, Romeo, Soph. (6-1)
A lot was riding on the Finals match for Krauss – more than the title.
“Honestly, I just wanted 100 wins – I just wanted it,” she said.
Krauss got both. Previously, she had lost twice to Manuel, including in last year’s state finals tournament. This time, she left no doubt.
“It was just amazing. I’ve lost to her twice so far and just to know that I can beat her and I can be a girl that gets 100 wins, it’s just amazing,” the emotional Krauss said. “I’m just so grateful right now.”
Sabrina Nauss, Brighton, Soph. (9-0)
Fall, 1:59, over Khloe Williams, Clio, Jr. (7-2)
On Friday, Nauss became the first girl to win a match at the MHSAA’s first Finals tournament.
On Saturday, she finished the job in a big way, earning a victory over Williams to cap a memorable weekend and season.
“This weekend was so special. This will be a weekend I’ll never forget in my life,” Nauss said. “It was great – it was great to be out here and prove that girls can wrestle just as hard as guys can and that we’re just as equal as they are and we should be on the mat alongside of them. This was so special.”
Kailyn Garrett, South Lyon, Sr. (8-1)
Major decision, 19-9, over Gabriella Allen, Marcellus, Soph. (16-1)
Garrett could not have imagined finishing her high school wrestling career in a better way.
Sure, she won her second state title in three years, but this one felt so much bigger.
“Well, first, the crowd size. And then also being able to be seen next to the guys, seen as equals, is definitely a big difference,” Garrett said. “I had people when I won (two years ago) didn’t say anything and then now even qualifying, they feel obligated to congratulate me, so that’s a big difference.”
PHOTOS (Top) Hartland’s Eliana Bommarito holds up four fingers on each hand to signify winning her fourth championship Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) Saline’s Emme Hicks, left, locks up with Gladwin’s Tricia Pyrzewski. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.
“I always wanted to coach,” the former Rockford High School wrestling standout said. “I think I have wanted to coach since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a college wrestling coach.”
Bennett, 33, is currently living out his dreams of becoming a collegiate coach as a member of the Central Michigan University wrestling program.
Bennett, one of the most decorated wrestlers in CMU history, is in his 10th season on 32-year coach Tom Borrelli’s staff.
“I was getting ready to graduate, and a position opened up,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Borrelli knew that I really wanted to stay involved in wrestling and get into coaching. I was fortunate enough to slide into that position, and he had enough faith in me to let me stay here.”
Before getting the opportunity to coach, Bennett amassed eight years of unbridled success at the high school and collegiate levels.
He was a three-time Individual Finals champion at Rockford and helped lead the Rams to a Division 1 team championship as a junior.
“I had a really good high school experience, and I really enjoyed wrestling for our head coach at the time, Don Rinehart,” Bennett said. “He coached for a long time, and we always had some very competitive teams.
“In 2007, my junior year, we won the team state duals, but every year we were really competitive and had multiple individual state champions. Those were the type of teams I was able to wrestle on, which made it pretty exciting and pretty fun when you have those types of guys around you.”
After excelling through the junior ranks, Bennett made an immediate impact for the Rams and captured the Division 1 championship at 140 pounds as a freshman.
However, the following year, he took third at 152 after losing a semifinal match 2-1.
That defeat was humbling for Bennett but also showed him how to handle adversity.
“At the time, in my eyes, the world was ending,” Bennett said. “You look back and it probably was more of a positive. It's good to have those things happen to you, and you face some adversity.
“And I think that's more relatable to life rather than just when you win all the time. I did a lot of winning, but when things are really important, sometimes it's good to fail, for things not to go your way because it will probably happen for the rest of your life.
“You have to learn how to respond and come back from that and handle it the right way and just get back to work. At the time, I remember how devastated I was, but looking back it probably was a positive thing long term.”
Bennett wound up collecting two more Individual Finals titles, at 160 and 171 pounds, to end his high school career and then was named Mr. Wrestler, receiving the award given to the top senior wrestler by the state coaches association.
“I wasn't even thinking that I might get that,” he said. “There are so many great high school wrestlers that come out every year, and thinking about the guys I wrestled … to be singled out as the one chosen for that award was pretty special.”
After graduation, Bennett took his talents to Mount Pleasant. He could’ve gone anywhere to wrestle, but found the right fit at CMU.
“I knew I wanted to wrestle in college, and it was close to home, which I liked,” Bennett said. “I didn't feel like I had to go across the country to have an opportunity to accomplish my goals. I felt like I could stay here and do that.”
Bennett is the only four-time All-American in CMU history and one of three Chippewas to have earned four individual Mid-American Conference titles.
Bennett twice earned the Chick Sherwood Award as CMU’s most valuable wrestler and was named the MAC Wrestler of the Year in 2012. He also had earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award in 2010.
Bennett ranks sixth in CMU history with 121 career victories, and his career win percentage of .834 is fourth all-time. In 2013, he finished 31-2 for a .939 win percentage, the second-best in program history. He also won a school-record 30 consecutive matches during that season and finished a personal-best fourth at the national tournament.
“At the time I was disappointed with how my career went, because I was never a national champion,” Bennett said. “But I think looking back on it, I have a lot more appreciation for what I did.
“As a coach, I realize how hard it is to have success at the college level, and every year you see great wrestlers not make the podium. Sometimes I’m shocked when certain guys don’t place, and it makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a four-time All-American, let alone place one time or multiple times.”
The transition to the coaching side was a difficult process for Bennett, but he knew he wanted to mentor other wrestlers the way his former coaches did with him.
“You put so much into the sport and you realize how much time other people invested and how important it was for me to do well, and so I guess for me it was a hard transition to make,” Bennett said. “You’re so competitive and so focused on yourself, but then being able to help these guys improve, get better and hopefully accomplish their goals was something I was looking forward to doing.
“I had so many people help me do that, and then I was able to be in their shoes and give back to these guys.”
Coaching has kept him involved in a sport he loves.
“And I get to continue to learn and grow and develop in different areas, not just wrestling-wise,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of great people through wrestling and coaching. The guys who come through our program are pretty awesome people.
“I’m pretty fortunate, and I've really enjoyed the coaching side of it, being in the wrestling room with these guys. Getting them ready for a match and going over things after a match. There is a lot that goes into it, but I really enjoy it.”
The love of wrestling for Bennett began at 6 years old, when he was coached by his uncle Tom Bennett – a former Division III All-American – and dad Doug.
“My uncle did a ton for me wrestling-wise, and my dad was the conditioning and discipline-type guy,” Bennett said. “Together it was a good mix. For as long as I can remember, I was always in really good shape. I loved wrestling right away.”
Bennett admits that he probably missed out on a lot when he was younger because he was determined to be the best and his life revolved around wrestling and training.
“It can be a tough way to live, but at the time that's what I wanted to do so that's what I did,” Bennett said. “When I was little my dad always told me that I'm not going to take you across the country to these tournaments if we are not training to win the tournament, not going to fill out the brackets, so my whole life the goal was always to be a champion.
“Going into high school my goal was to be a four-time state champion. I wanted to win the senior nationals, the junior nationals, and I won all those things. Going into college, in my mind, the next step was to be a national champion, and I don't think you realize how hard it really is, and I don't think I realized how hard it was to be an All-American.”
Bennett was promoted to CMU associate head coach last June after spending nine seasons as an assistant. He said the biggest difference with his new position is on the administrative side.
“I do a lot of scheduling and budgeting, things I didn’t do as much before in my years as an assistant coach,” he said. “I’ve taken the reins on some of these things, and it’s good for me to learn.”
Bennett is content with his current role at CMU and continuing to evolve as a coach under Borrelli. However, he hopes to one day take that next step as the head coach of a collegiate program.
“That’s my ultimate goal with coaching,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know. I guess I’m not in a hurry. When it happens, it will happen. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.
“Coach Borrelli is an unbelievable coach, leader, mentor and role model, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and soak up as much as I can from him until I get an opportunity somewhere to be a head coach. Right now I'm happy with where I'm at, and when that time comes, it will come.”
Bennett, 33, is engaged to former Chippewas field hockey player Erica Garwood. The couple has been dating for seven years and will get married next month.
“We’re excited, and I’m sure life will really change when we start having kids,” Bennett said. “But it’s good right now. We both went to school here, and she has a good job at an elementary school in town. We enjoy it up here.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Ben Bennett stands atop the podium at the 2008 Individual Finals, and now with fiancé Erica Garwood. (Middle) Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season. (Current photo courtesy of Ben Bennett; 2008 photos from MHSAA Archives.)