Jake Kasner knows the hard work is still ahead for him and his Algonac wrestling teammates.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate what the Muskrats already have accomplished.
“It’s great,” the Algonac senior 152-pounder said. “We had a couple tournaments cut short, and we had some teammates out – really the only dual we had our whole team was against Richmond. Everyone has been stepping up when we need them, and we continue to win duals whenever possible. I’m very proud of our team in that way.”
Algonac is 21-0 and ranked No. 4 in Division 3 and won Wednesday’s Team District with a championship victory over Clawson. The team collected hardware throughout the year and finished a program-best second in the Macomb County Invitational.
While that incredible season did not include a Blue Water Area Conference championship, the Muskrats were 5-0 in the league, including a win against perennial state power Richmond, something no BWAC team had achieved since 2004.
“We’ve been trying to harp on consistency,” Algonac coach Brian Ranger said. “In past years, we had some tough teams where one week they looked amazing, and the next week not so much. We’ve been working to have that same, consistent effort every week and being the best version of ourselves. We don’t have kids worry so much about the other teams. We’re good enough now where if we wrestle to the best of our abilities, we can wrestle with anyone. We’re making sure we bring the same championship-level effort every time.”
Ranger took over at Algonac before the 2011-12 season, inheriting a program with no youth feeder system and 11 high school wrestlers.
Over his first 10 seasons, Ranger turned the program around, winning five District championships and – along with the help of his friend and assistant coach Ken Thomas – built the youth program to more than 70 wrestlers.
Algonac spent plenty of time over those 10 years among the top teams in the BWAC and ranked among the top 10 in Division 3.
The team also ended each of those previous 10 seasons with a District or Regional loss against Richmond.
“For whatever reason, we never wrestled as well as we should have at the end of the season against Richmond, and it pained me,” Ranger said. “I was always kind of searching every offseason for why we weren’t performing better against some of these better teams. This year, we focused on being the best us. If we’re the best us, we’re pretty hard to beat.”
Algonac’s best could be enough to end the streak this year, but it’s tough to fault the Muskrats for previous defeats. Richmond – the alma mater of both Ranger and Thomas – has won eight Division 3 Finals titles since 2000 and has been a Division 3 finalist eight of the past 10 seasons.
The Blue Devils won the BWAC title this year, taking first at the league tournament and edging Algonac in dual points thanks to the Muskrats having to cancel an early-season league date against Imlay City and Croswell-Lexington.
Richmond may be waiting for the Muskrats in the Regional Final, but first must wrestle No. 10-ranked Yale, the tournament host next Wednesday. On the other side of the bracket, Algonac will face Imlay City, which Ranger considers a top-10 caliber team.
While Algonac may have put a target on its back with the earlier win against Richmond, the bigger takeaway could be the confidence gained by the Muskrats heading into the postseason.
“It was a little bit more of a mental victory, if anything,” Ranger said. “For so long, we haven’t performed when it came to a match like that. We’re still proving to ourselves that we are good enough for those moments.”
The Muskrats are a young team, with 10 underclassmen in the starting lineup, including seven freshmen. The final five matches against Richmond were wrestled by Algonac underclassmen, as they pulled out a 31-29 victory. Six freshmen – Chris Campbell (second, 103), Sky Langewicz (fourth, 103), Lucky Gartin (third, 112), Steve Shannon (third, 119), Alex Bright (third, 125) and Reid Hiltunen (second, 160) – placed at the BWAC tournament.
“I saw it coming,” said Kasner, who won a BWAC title at 152. “We’ve had all the younger kids coming up through the youth program. There was a big gap the last few years in the lower weights, and we knew we were going to get a lot of that filled, so if you ask me, this isn’t really a surprise. (The younger wrestlers) come to practice every day, and we expect the same thing from them as we expect from everyone else. They give it their all every day, including the Richmond match.”
Those younger contributors not only came up through the Algonac youth program, they thrived while taking part.
“My young kids, this is kind of all they know,” Ranger said. “They’re not super surprised; they’re kind of used to it. I think it’s surprising to some people around our community and other communities. I think (this season) took that belief to another level, but they kind of already had that inside of them, that we’re this good and we need to be like this every year.”
As the talent base was building, Ranger also was working on himself as a coach. The former Elmhurst University wrestler has been tweaking his approach over the past decade – not so much in what he physically teaches, but the mental aspect.
“I’ve always known how to show wrestling moves, but it was kind of some of that mental preparation – how to get them ready mentally and physically, how to peak at the right time,” Ranger said. “Most of my philosophy I use here has been stolen from about 27 different people, plus (former Richmond coach George Hamblin), and my college coach was a Division I national champion. I still haven’t learned it all. I’m also trying to stay positive in the corner as much as I can. I’m an emotional guy, and if something goes wrong, I used to wear that in my body language too often.”
That emotion is sure to come out, though, if the Muskrats can accomplish what is now in front of them – advancing to the Team Wrestling Finals for the first time in program history.
“We all love (the coaches), everyone on our team,” Kasner said. “They work so hard for our team. Coach Thomas drives 45 minutes just to get to practice every day. To (beat their alma mater) for them after all the years and all the stuff they did for us, we were happy for them, too.
“We’ve prepared all season and took it one day at a time. We’re going to be ready. We’ve been ready. I think we have a good shot to be the first team to make it to team state from Algonac. But there’s no for sures.”
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 protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Algonac coach Brian Ranger gives Alex Bright a pep talk this season. (Middle) The Muskrats’ Lucky Gartin works for a pin. (Photos courtesy of the Algonac wrestling program.)
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.)