BELLEVILLE – Caleb Brown continues to be haunted by what he considers a grim disappointment in his Belleville wrestling career.
Last season, Brown lost during what those in the wrestling fraternity call the “blood round.” This is the consolation round, a match for fourth place, at the Individual Wrestling Regionals. Brown lost by one point in the 152-pound weight class to an opponent he had defeated earlier in the season and, thus, missed qualifying for the MHSAA Finals.
He was devastated but not consumed by it. For one, that was his junior season. Brown rededicated himself during the offseason. He continued to run cross country to keep his weight down and also increase his endurance.
This season Brown broke through barriers, claiming the Wayne County and Division 1 Regional championships at 152.
As proud as he is of reaching this point, it’s made even more special by the fact that he’ll enter The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday with his twin brother Chris. Chris Brown competes at 130. Last season he qualified for the MHSAA Finals at 119 and won a first-round match before losing his next.
“It’s really cool,” Caleb said. “I missed out last year. Being a senior, it’s cool.
“(Winning the regional) didn’t hit me right away. I was just talking about it with my teammates, and that’s when it hit me. I was really focused on winning the match.”
Caleb is 44-4 this season and will face Kyle Minor of Roseville in Thursday’s first round.
Chris is 47-2 and will go against Lee Grabowski of Brighton.
The Browns say having a twin who competes in the same sports is an advantage, if for no other reason than it enhances one’s competitive nature.
They both started wrestling in middle school by chance.
“We played football in the beginning,” Chris said. “The coach told us to wrestle to keep in shape. I was terrible in the beginning. But we’ve never been known as quitters. I like the individualism. You can’t use the excuse your team lost it for you.”
Once they entered high school, the Browns gravitated even more toward the sport. But it wasn’t until their sophomore season that they became proficient at it.
For Chris, there was one match that showed he could compete against the best.
“My sophomore year was my first on varsity,” he said. “I went against a ranked opponent, and I won by a point. That was huge for my confidence.”
Coinciding with the Browns’ rise was the return of Derek Phillips as coach. Phillips started coaching in 1994 and stayed 11 seasons before taking time off to help raise two children. He remained within the school district as a teacher, but the time commitment of teaching and coaching together was not conducive to spending quality time with his sons.
In 2013, Phillips returned. He has been a mentor for the Browns and a third senior MHSAA Finals qualifier, David Tooley (215).
Phillips was the one who encouraged the Browns to compete in cross country.
“It goes hand in hand,” Phillips said of the two sports. “I love it. They come into the wrestling season in shape. All three have over 100 wins and all three are good students. They’re a coach’s dream.”
Tooley is a little different. It’s not because he plays football instead of competing in cross country. And it’s not because he’s a three-sport athlete (also plays baseball). It’s his warm-up routine that causes many to take a second look, scratch their heads or both.
It’s more than a routine. It’s a dance. Sort of. He got the idea from watching a wrestler from Southgate Anderson who competed against his brother, Mark Tooley, when the elder Tooley wrestled for Belleville in 2011.
“It’s like no other,” David Tooley said. “It’s an active movement. It’s like a dance, and it’s a little embarrassing.”
The Browns’ warmup routines are a little less flamboyant, but they do get a kick out of watching their teammate go through his routine. Chris likes to listen to music just before his matches. Caleb prefers listening to his coach, receiving last-minute instructions.
Away from the mat, the Browns are constantly challenging each other. Take running, for example.
“We try to one-up each other,” Chris said. “We’ve always been competitive. I’m faster than he is, when we run cross country. We’re not too far apart though.”
Caleb judges a person’s speed all together differently.
“He might beat me in cross country,” he said. “But if it’s a true test of speed, I’m faster.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Chris Brown works to gain control during one of his Division 1 Regional matches Feb. 20. (Middle) Caleb Brown, Chris Brown, David Tooley.(Below) Caleb Brown works an opponent toward a potential pin during one of his Regional matches. (Top and below photos by Douglas Chapman.)
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.)