Levi Harber was ecstatic Saturday after winning his own Individual Wrestling Finals title.
But when his Montrose teammate Aidan Bernard won about an hour later, Harber’s excitement spilled into raw emotion.
“So, me and Aidan, ever since way back, we’ve been wrestling together,” Harber said. “... For me to do it, that meant that he had to do it, too. It was weird. I couldn’t celebrate unless I knew my partner in crime did it, too. The reason I was so emotional was that the kid works so hard. Aidan works so hard. He wanted it so bad.”
Harber won the Division 3 285-pound title at Ford Field, and Bernard won at 135 pounds. Following Bernard’s win, the two seniors shared a tearful embrace, celebrating a moment that gave Montrose multiple champions for the first time since 2006, when the Rams were among the most dominant teams in the state.
Their accomplishment wrapped up careers that included a combined six all-state finishes and saw Montrose advance to the Team Quarterfinals four times.
“That group, as a whole, was pretty special,” Montrose coach Jason Perrin said. “I don’t know if it would be as fitting if that group left us and didn’t have a couple top-of-the-podium guys. When that group came in as freshmen, they were the two that led the way right out of the gate. Those two definitely highlighted that class, so it definitely was fitting.”
Harber won his Finals title with a second-period pin, while Bernard won his Finals match 8-1.
They had the same goal heading into this season, but were coming at it from different angles.
Football is where Harber’s future lies, as he has signed to play at Vanderbilt. He decided as a sophomore that’s what he wanted to do, but that didn’t detract from his work as a wrestler. He simply just worked.
Harber’s daily routine includes waking up and going to the weight room by 3:30 a.m., and when the pandemic didn’t allow him to do so, he was able to get some of the equipment from the school and work out at home.
And even after he signed, he continued to put that effort into both sports, something his Vanderbilt coaches appreciated.
“Division I coaches love wrestlers,” Harber said. “They love multi-sport athletes, so when I told the coaches that I was a wrestler, they loved it. Because, wrestling is different. It’s not only difficult to do, it’s mentally hard. Football coaches are looking for kids who are not only physically strong, but mentally strong, and wrestling makes mentally-strong people.”
Harber entered the season having taken third as a sophomore and second as a junior. His ambition to win it all only increased when he realized that nobody from Montrose had ever done it at heavyweight.
“He brought it to my attention, and I was like, ‘No, you’re wrong,’” Perrin said. “We have a wall in our wrestling room with all our state placers. I went into the room one day and looked at it and was like, ‘Dang, he’s right.’”
Bernard also plays football for the Rams, but his love is wrestling. He plans to wrestle in college and has offers, but has not made a public commitment.
After taking third as a sophomore and fourth as a junior, he dedicated his offseason to getting over the hump and standing at the top of the podium.
“Last year really made me want it the most,” Bernard said. “Coming in as the No. 1 seed and taking fourth, I was hungry. I was really putting in a lot of work, because I had one more shot.”
His offseason included a trip to Virginia Beach, and while wrestling a New Jersey state champion there, he injured his knee. He was told it was his ACL, but nothing that would require surgery.
Bernard took a week off before competing in the Disney Duals. He played through the injury during football season and wrestled through it in the winter. While he wore a brace, he said it wasn’t an issue – until the Finals. Twice in his victory Saturday, Bernard had to take injury time because of his knee. Afterward, he would say that nothing – not the knee, not even a broken bone – would stop him from finishing the match.
“To be quite honest, I don’t really know if I asked or knew the extent to which he was injured,” Perrin said. “Every time I turned around, he was still doing this or that – he played football. When he took the first injury time, obviously I was concerned, but I knew it was something that he’s going to be able to battle through because he has all year. When he took the second, we were concerned, but my mind immediately went to he can’t take a third, because then he’s done. We were definitely making sure that he knew to hustle back to the center.”
Bernard made his road to the championship match look easy, with a 6-0 victory followed by a pair of pins. But he accomplished it against a returning Finals champion and two other placers, including one who had defeated him twice the year before.
“I remember I told (Perrin) specifically, ‘You have to beat them all, or you can’t win the title,’” Bernard said. “That was my main thought the whole time. No matter who I came up against, if I couldn’t beat that person, I couldn’t win the title.”
Getting Montrose back to its early-2000s heights is a tall task. The Rams won team titles in 2003 and 2004 and had 10 individual champions from 2003-06. But thanks to the Class of 2022, it’s closer than it’s been in a decade.
Harber and Bernard are at the center of that, and according to Harber, it can be drilled down even further.
“It was Aidan Bernard,” Harber said. “That was our team captain. If I had to have one man on that team command the ship, it’d be Aidan. He showed up to practice on the worst of days and the best of days, and he was always setting the tempo for the rest of us.”
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) Levi Harber’s arm is raised in victory Saturday after his Division 3 championship win at 285 pounds. (Middle) Harbor and teammate Aidan Bernard hold up their charts after claiming titles at Ford Field. (Below) Bernard works to take his opponent to the mat. (Action photos by HighSchoolSportsScene.com; middle photo courtesy of the Montrose 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.)