By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
HOWARD CITY – Tanner Astrauskas is back on track to achieve his goal of becoming an MHSAA Finals champion.
Tragedy almost prevented him from realizing that dream.
Astrauskas is a senior 140-pound wrestler for Tri-County High School. He had a solid start to his career, winning 35 matches as a freshman and then as a sophomore going 44-7 and placing eighth at 125 pounds at the Division 3 Individual Finals.
But just before he stepped onto the mat to wrestle his first match that 2017 weekend at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Astrauskas received disheartening news that changed his world in an instant.
"Just before the finals of my sophomore year I found out my best friend killed himself, and I found that out just before I wrestled at state," Astrauskas said. "That whole tournament I was pretty broke, I didn't even want to wrestle. I got pinned in my first match by the kid who ended up winning it, and then I won my next two matches 4-2 and 5-0 to make it into the medal round. I was pretty happy I placed considering the circumstances."
Best friend Casey Eckert was only 15 when he died. The circumstances lingered for Astrauskas when he returned home to Howard City, and they sent him into a downward spiral.
"Two days after state we had his funeral, and that took me to a dark place," Astrauskas said. "I wasn't doing so well in school, and I ended up running away from home."
Astrauskas ran away to Tennessee to stay with friends, but it was another friend who helped bring him back to Michigan.
"My friend, Hunter Brimmer, was at Olivet (College) and he talked me into coming back and (being) with my parents,” Astrauskas said. “And they ended up picking me up from Olivet and taking me home."
But Astrauskas was still empty and searching for answers.
"After coming home, I still needed to get away to find myself and I ended up moving to Shelby and got my own place and went to school at Shelby High School my junior year," Astrauskas said. "I just wanted to move away and get my head right, and learn what it took to be on my own."
Astrauskas lived on his own in Shelby under the watchful eye of close family friends and didn’t play any sports as a junior, and the experience seemed to help him grow. Then this year, he made another decision in that growth process. In November, after football season at Shelby, Astrauskas decided he was ready to come home and face those difficult memories.
Since he was moving back in with his parents, he was able to wrestle for Tri-County this winter. And with a clearer head, he has mat goals again.
"I just felt like I wanted to move back and finish my senior year with friends I grew up with," Astrauskas said. "And I felt I could achieve my goals and excel better at Tri-County. I want to win a state championship."
Astrauskas is off to a great start. He is 12-1, losing his first match of the year Saturday to Kent City's Evan Jones in overtime in the 140-pound final of the Sparta Invitational.
One of his biggest wins this winter was a 5-3 decision over Madison Heights Lamphere's Matt Tomsett – the Division 2 Finals runner-up at 130 pounds last year.
Astrauskas also is doing great in his school work, currently carrying a 3.45 GPA. And Tri-County coach Corey Renner has seen a different person in his wrestling room.
"I think this whole thing has helped him a lot," Renner said. "He's always been a good wrestler, but he was the kid that if you yelled at him to run faster in sprints, he would go slower and end up in last. But this year he is first, he seems to have more focus and is more confident. He has become a leader, he has been good with the young kids. He has come a long way."
Life can be cruel, and for Astrauskas, a lot of cruelty has happened at a young age. But he is taking everything as a positive now, fueling his focus on getting to Ford Field for March 1-2 and this season’s Individual Finals – where he’ll compete to reach the top of the podium.
"To anyone out there going through depression, it does get better," Astrauskas said. "There are other ways to deal with it. Get therapy, support from your friends. You don't need to turn to drugs or alcohol, or even worse. Things will get better."
PHOTOS: (Top) Tanner Astrauskas wrestles Richmond’s Alec Ziza during a consolation first-round match at the 2017 MHSAA Individual Finals. (Middle) Astrauskas, back home at Tri-County, has become a team leader with title aspirations.
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.)