By Dan Stickradt
Special for Second Half
BATTLE CREEK — Lee Grabowski must have felt the weight of the world on his shoulders Saturday night.
With his team leading 28-25 heading into the final match at 112, the Brighton sophomore posted a 4-2 victory over a rival who had defeated him twice this season.
Not only was the victory significant for Grabowski, but it resulted in the final points in Brighton’s 31-25 victory over Hartland in the MHSAA Division 1 Final at Kellogg Arena.
The team title was the first for Brighton, which was making its first-ever appearance in the championship match.
“We kind of thought with a few matches to go that it could come down to Grabowski’s match,” admitted Tony Greathouse, Brighton’s second-year coach. “We knew that he could do it. What a way for a sophomore to go in there and beat a kid who had beaten him earlier this season. With that pressure, he stepped up and (delivered). We did not want it to go down to (criteria) points.”
Grabowski lost to Hartland’s 112-pounder by one and three points, respectively, this season in Kensington Lakes Activities Association North competition.
“I knew I could beat him. It’s not like he beat me by all that much (earlier),” smiled Grabowski. “The last time he beat me by a point, so I had to stay on top of him.
Brighton (29-1) lost a point three matches earlier for unsportsmanlike conduct. If the meet would have ended in a 28-28 draw, Hartland would have won on the criteria.
Grabowski and the Bulldogs didn’t leave that for chance.
Brighton, ranked No. 1 in the state the whole season, had taken down Hartland in their previous meetings this season, defeating the third-ranked Eagles (31-4) by a 38-18 count in mid-January. The Bulldogs also defeated Hartland at the KLAA Championships.
Brighton walked into Kellogg Arena with 10 senior starters, but the platform for a title run had long since been put into place. The Bulldogs also had plenty of motivation, losing to Hartland in last year’s District Final.
“I think looking back on that day, we had plenty of motivation for this season — no doubt,” noted Greathouse. “With all of the seniors we have on this team, they talked about coming back this season and contending for a state championship. They stepped up this season and accomplished that goal.
“But it just didn’t happen overnight,” continued Greathouse. “I have only been here for two years. I like to think that I have helped. But Sam Amine was here for 10 seasons before and he really laid the foundation for all of this, getting Brighton to become such a strong program. We have only added to it. The kids on this team put in all of the hard work to make this possible.”
Brighton opened this season with a convincing victory over three-time reigning Division 1 champion Detroit Catholic Central, and the Bulldogs took over the top spot in the rankings right after that signature win.
On the other side, Hartland, one of Michigan’s most successful wrestling programs over the past quarter century, claimed its fifth runner-up trophy. The Eagles made their 14th straight trip to the Quarterfinals and 16th total in 23 seasons.
This also marked Hartland’s 11th Semifinal appearance since 2004.
“It does hurt now,” sighed Hartland coach Todd Cheney, who took over the program in 1993. “I know we have a lot coming back next season with only two senior starters. But we came close again. We lost a couple of matches that we could have won and won a couple of other swing matches. But you have to win more matches at the state finals and Brighton won eight of them.”
Brighton led 12-0 after three matches, only to see Hartland go on a 22-0 run for a 22-12 advantage through eight weight classes.
A technical fall win from Beau Mourer (171) and a void victory from Nick Brish (189) put Brighton back up 23-22 with four matches to go — and the Bulldogs never relinquished the lead.
PHOTO: Brighton and Hartland wrestlers grapple for position during Saturday’s Division 1 Final. (Click to see more at 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.)