Chris Lilly could have plenty of thoughts racing through his mind as he goes through his senior wrestling season at Croswell-Lexington.
It’s his final year wrestling for his dad, Cros-Lex coach Joe Lilly, who has been in his corner since he began wrestling at 7 years old.
It could be his final year wrestling competitively period, as he’s not sure he’ll continue with the sport in college.
He’s a returning MHSAA Finals champion, having won the Division 2 title at 135 pounds a year ago, which has placed a target squarely on his back. Lilly is also the first Cros-Lex wrestler to ever have the chance to win a second title, as the school’s previous two champions – Donnie Corby and Collin Lieber – won as seniors.
But Lilly isn’t thinking too much about any of that. He’s just thinking about wrestling.
“I’m just going to do what I do,” Lilly said. “I don’t feel pressured. I just feel like it’s my last season, so I’m going to work hard, and the outcome will be what it is. I know I have the opportunity to (be the program’s first two-time MHSAA champion), and that’s another motivation. But I don’t think about it like that all the time. I just feel free. I feel like if it happens, it happens. I want it to.”
Lilly’s approach is working as he’s 24-0 on the season and recently recorded his 150th career victory. While the possibility of creating Cros-Lex history is in front of him, what he’s already done makes him one of the program’s greatest of all-time.
“That’s awesome,” Joe Lilly said. “That’s beyond words and beyond my expectations. That’s never been put on the plate that it was what the expectation was. The main expectation for my kids is to put their best effort into everything they do. To now see where he’s come with that is phenomenal.”
As noted above, Chris began wrestling when he was 7 and has been coached by his dad the entire time. But he has been around the Cros-Lex program essentially since birth.
“I was actually looking through pictures for graduation with my mom, and she kept pulling up pictures of me in (Dad’s) arms in the middle school gym with the wrestling team,” Chris said. “Ever since I was little, I was with him there.”
It was in sixth grade, Joe said, that things really started to click for Chris. That was the year Corby, a 2008 graduate, came back to coach after finishing his career at Central Michigan University.
“I looked up to Donnie a lot,” Chris said. “I remember coming in when I was really little, and he’d mess around with me. When he went away and wrestling season would roll around, I’d always remember him and I’d look in the hall, look in the wrestling room and see his picture on the wall and think that I wanted to be that. When he came back, it made me want to buy in. Then (Lieber) comes around, and he was just another perfect role model for me. He was (a senior) my freshman year. He was a really good friend and role model.”
As a freshman and sophomore, Chris qualified for the MHSAA Finals but didn’t place. He entered last year’s tournament as a Regional runner-up with a 48-7 record, but battled through his bracket, defeating Madison Heights Lamphere’s Matthew Tomsett 6-3 in the final.
“If you would have told me that I was going to be a state champ my freshman year, I probably would have called you silly,” he said. “Honestly though, before states we were running in the wrestling room and I turned the corner and looked toward the door – that's where Collin’s picture and Donnie’s pictures are at – and that’s where I wanted to be. I felt like I had the stuff to do it. Checking into our hotel, the other wrestlers were there and I looked at every one of them and I wanted to wrestle them all in the lobby. I knew I could (win) it. We get there, and something just clicked. It was amazing. I felt like I couldn’t be stopped.”
While Chris was confident, it didn’t stop his dad from taking part in what has become a pre-Finals ritual of sorts.
“In all of my state championship matches that I’ve had kids wrestle, I’ve thrown up before we stepped on the mat,” Joe Lilly said. “In all three of them. With Chris, I was thinking I was fine, then they called his name and I threw up in the garbage can and went and met him at the mat. The component of it being your son, it’s a whole new dimension. But actually, once we got wrestling, it was the same as coaching him all year.”
Chris has a video saved on his phone of the post-match celebration, when the emotion of the moment started to hit and he jumped into his dad’s arms. It’s a video he said he watches every night.
He’s motivated to enjoy that feeling again. But more than that, he’s motivated to show everyone that he can earn it once more.
“I feel like I still have something to prove,” he said. “I feel like people kind of doubt it. I was ranked seventh, and they say it was a fluke. I have to go back, and I have to prove it wasn’t.”
To do that, he’s focused on keeping things normal and not worrying about all that surrounds this season.
“It’s business as usual,” Chris said. “I get in the room and do what needs to be done. We work hard, but I kind of try to keep it light. That’s been kind of my key this year, is to have fun, like I did last year.”
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) Croswell-Lexington’s Chris Lilly has his hand raised in victory during last season’s MHSAA Division 2 Individual Finals at Ford Field. (Middle) Lilly’s father and coach, Joe (front), celebrates his son’s win. (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.)