MACOMB – Success must begin somewhere.
And for the Macomb Dakota wrestling program, its beginnings can be traced to a church in Mount Clemens nearly 25 years ago.
Ed Skowneski, a longtime educator in Macomb County who was a football star at Wayne State University during the 1970s, got with a few buddies and formed a youth wrestling program named the Bad Boys Wrestling Club.
This program would eventually produce six MHSAA champions and approximately 20 others who reached the Individual Finals. It also helped inspire two of those wrestlers to become coaches at the high school level.
Eddie Skowneski, Ed's son, leads the Macomb Dakota program ranked No. 3 in Division 1 this week by Michigan Grappler. Nephew Anthony Biondo assists top-ranked Detroit Catholic Central.
Before the Bad Boys – which would eventually evolve into Team All Sport – there were pockets in the county where the sport thrived, such as Fraser High where Al Kastl had built a strong program. But for the most part, Macomb County was a step or two behind nearby counties such as Genesee, Lapeer, Oakland and Wayne, where the sport had well-established programs like Clarkston, Davison, Detroit Catholic Central, Hazel Park, Lake Orion, Montrose, New Lothrop and others.
Skowneski teamed with people like Bob Palazzolo, Rick Julien – an assistant under Kastl at Fraser who later became Fraser’s head coach – and later, Vince Biondo, Skowneski’s roommate in college, to organize a competitive youth program.
“We had some good kids back then,” Skowneski said. “We had six state champions come out of there. We practiced twice a week at the church, but it was more like a hall or reception room. After one year we moved to Fraser, Mark Twain Elementary (School), where I was a principal. That made it easier, for travel and everything. We had our own mats in the school, and it started to grow.”
A team from Macomb County has yet to reach an MHSAA Division 1 Final, but they’re getting close. Last season Dakota reached a Division 1 Semifinal for the first time, and it was just the third time a Macomb County team had advanced that far in the top division/classification.
Two other county schools fared well last season, too, in other divisions. Warren Woods Tower lost in the Division 2 Final to Lowell, and Richmond won the Division 3 title.
Skowneski’s motivation to become a coach came from his son, Eddie, and, later, his nephew Anthony Biondo, Vince Biondo’s son. Eddie Skowneski got his start with the Bad Boys at age 9 with his cousin who is two years younger. The two became best friends and would become two of the county’s top wrestlers during the early to mid-2000s at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.
Each would reach the Individual Finals three times. In 2003, Skowneski won the 140-pound title over fellow county wrestler Justin Petrone of Roseville, 1-0. Biondo was a three-time champion placing first at 103 in 2003, first at 112 the next season and first at 145 in 2006.
Skowneski would earn a scholarship to Michigan State University, where he was a three-year starter. Biondo went to University of Michigan and was a three-time NCAA Tournament qualifier. His best season came as a senior when he went 2-2 at the NCAAs and earned his 100th career win.
“Those Bad Boys days, those were some great times,” Anthony Biondo said. “It was a great group of kids. I just remember being in that church with Uncle Ed. I really wasn’t into wrestling when I started. I was into hockey and football. I started going there one day a week, and it just grew. My first year wrestling (at Chippewa Valley), I won the state title. It was just that one-on-one thing that I liked. My dad was a huge goal-setting type of guy, and I just kept at it.”
Their wrestling careers didn’t stop after graduation. Skowneski became an assistant coach at Fraser for one season then went to Warren DeLaSalle for two as an assistant before becoming the head coach at Dakota in 2012. Biondo is in his seventh season as an assistant coach at Detroit Catholic Central, the top-ranked team and reigning champion in Division 1.
Eddie Skowneski, 31, said he’s had a number of mentors throughout his wrestling career who have contributed to him becoming the coach he is today. His father is one, but he also said his high school coach John Jeffire at Chippewa Valley, St. Clair Shores Lakeview football coach Pat Threet and his college coaches all have had their influence.
When Ed Skowneski retired as school principal at Mark Twain in 2015, his son quickly found him a part-time job as his assistant at Dakota to keep him active.
“He’s always been a great coach,” Eddie said. “Coaching with my dad, it never really stopped. With him, it’s the little things. He always said, if you have good technique, you can beat someone who is more physical than you are. With my dad, he goes to each person and shows them the proper technique. With me, sure I want them to work and train hard. But I want my wrestlers to do it the right way.”
Ed Skowneski got out of coaching when his son went to high school. He said he had taken his son as far as he could and that it was better to have Eddie continue his progression with someone else as his coach.
Now that Ed’s back in it, coaching with his son no less, he couldn’t be happier.
“When he first got the job at Dakota, I thought of helping him but I just didn’t have the time,” Ed Skowneski said. “I’m enjoying it now. I’m not the head coach. He has the issues. I just work with the kids. It’s fantastic. It’s rewarding. We have a great group of kids and good parents.
“I look forward to the tournaments, which sometimes keeps me up at night. It’s nice that my son and I can do this together.”
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: Longtime coach Ed Skowneski stands with son Eddie (left) and nephew Anthony Biondo after a youth event when they were children. (Middle) Father and son hold up Eddie’s bracket sheet after he won the Division 1 championship at 145 pounds in 2006; to the right, they pose together during Biondo’s wedding. (Below) Ed Skowneski and Biondo, also before the latter’s wedding. (Photos provided by the Skowneski family.)
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.)