With second overtime running out, and Goodrich’s realistic chances of winning a Division 2 wrestling championship in the balance, Blake Coffell knew he had to move.
The senior heavyweight diagnosed the situation in his head – an escape would likely force an ultimate tiebreaker, and since it was Lowell’s Tyler Delooff who had scored first in the match, Delooff would have the choice. That wouldn’t do, Coffell thought, as Delooff would probably get away and win the match.
So Coffell went big, sitting out to work toward a reversal rather than standing up. It worked, and as the final seconds ticked away, Coffell had picked up a key victory and kept Goodrich within striking distance of the five-time reigning champions.
“I was facing the whole crowd at the time,” said Coffell, remembering the moment from Feb. 23. “Hearing the noise from our side was just really insane.”
The dual meet eventually went Lowell’s way, and while the loss stung and initially dulled the insanity of that moment for Coffell, it couldn’t take away from all he had gone through to get there.
Almost four months earlier to the day, Coffell underwent surgery to repair severe damage to his knee. And practically every day in between, he worked and focused on being in that moment at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo, despite how improbable it all seemed at first.
“We talked a lot about, ‘What’s your legacy going to be for Goodrich wrestling?’” Goodrich coach Ken Sirignano said. “We talk about the people in the past, and what we remember them for. Blake Coffell has a great legacy, coming back and doing what he did for the team.”
‘I know that scream’
On Sept. 28, Goodrich played Flint Hamady in a nonconference football game. The Martians were on defense, and Coffell, a defensive lineman, flushed the quarterback from the pocket. After what he had deemed a futile chase, he started to slow down, and that’s when he noticed an offensive lineman bearing down on him from behind.
“I’m a big guy, so I thought, ‘I’ll take him on,’” Coffell said. “I lowered my shoulder a little bit, but with him being up so much taller than me, he hit me up high. I planted, he hit me with all that speed and took me over my knee. I felt that pop instantly, and I started screaming. My friend tore his ACL last year, and I know that terrifying scream. Instantly, I knew what happened.”
Coffell had suffered a torn ACL, MCL, PCL, lateral and medial meniscus, and a fractured knee cap. His football season was clearly over, and the extent of the injury meant that wearing a brace and wrestling through it was also out of the question – especially with a scholarship to wrestle at Lake Erie College already in his future.
Surgery was the only option, even though it meant the two-time all-stater would likely miss his entire senior wrestling season.
“The first person I texted that night (were Lake Erie coaches Jeff Breese and Andrew Bearden),” Coffell said. “I told them about it and said, ‘Is this going to affect my scholarship?’ I got a text back in the morning and they said, ‘We still want you. Don’t worry about it. Get the surgery, and get ready for college.’
“Having him say that really just boosted me up, knowing that I had five more years of wrestling, and that I can be a national champ. I don’t have to be a state champ, I can be a national champ. Knowing I could wrestle in college kept me out of the depression for a while.”
On Oct. 25, Coffell underwent surgery to repair his knee.
‘I’ll be back for team states’
The Monday after surgery, Coffell couldn’t make it through the school day. It was midweek before he managed that feat.
“That’s when I crutched in (to Sirignano’s office) and said, ‘I’ll be back for team states,’” Coffell said. “He said that it would be great if I did, but that he couldn’t put all his faith on that.”
Sirignano explained to Coffell that he would hope for the best, but at the same time he would have to plan for the worst, something Coffell said he understood.
“We thought when he had surgery, that put him at not even four months from team state,” Sirignano said. “The fastest recovery we’ve ever had was James Penfold, who came back in four months the year before. We had no expectation that (Coffell) would make it back, so we kind of aligned our team in that way, which put everyone up a weight.”
While Coffell used Penfold’s quick recovery as motivation, sitting out as his teammates practiced and competed wore on him. He said that he was depressed, and that it even affected his school work for a while. But he remained plugged into the team.
“What I would do is I would go to practice for a while when I was still on crutches and watch all the new kids and try to help them,” Coffell said. “That’s when my friends got on me and said, ‘If you can’t practice, you might as well go lift.’ That’s how I took a lot of my anger out. That’s the only way I could take my anger out.”
To further complicate things, the doctor appointment Coffell had circled on his calendar four weeks prior to the MHSAA Finals had to be rescheduled because of the weather. And when he did make it in, the initial news wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“I went into the room and sat down and was talking to him, he did some tests on my knee and said, ‘It’s looking great. You’re about halfway there,’” Coffell said. “I said, ‘I don’t have time to be halfway there.’”
After some discussion, the doctor informed Coffell he would be cleared to wrestle with a brace.
“I was about to fall down and cry,” Coffell said. “He said to take it easy for the first week and wear a knee brace, and that if I didn’t take it off, I was cleared to wrestle. I hugged him. I was emotional at the time. I remember walking out of there and closing the door and basically screaming. I was so pumped to have that doctor’s note saying I was cleared for wrestling with a brace. I sent a picture of that note to the whole team.”
Sirignano was shocked.
“I was like, that doesn’t even make sense,” he said. “We had three weeks, so we had to see what kind of shape he could get into. It was rough at first; that first week was rough. He had to kind of change the way he wrestled a big, so we were kind of figuring it out as we went.”
Coffell’s clearance also came in time for the Individual District, but that was an idea that wasn’t discussed for long.
“My trainer at my school, she didn’t think I was ready, and I kind of agreed,” Coffell said. “That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to be there walking out of that tunnel in Kalamazoo. That was the goal. That's what I said I would do. If I get hurt trying to pursue an individual state title, that wasn’t the goal. I wanted our picture on the wall.”
Coffell’s return did come earlier than anticipated, however, as the Goodrich coaching staff decided they could need him to defeat Croswell-Lexington in the Team Regional. Coffell had already planned to weigh in that day, so he could have the two-pound allowance at the Team Finals. During his recovery, he had weighed as much as 315 pounds.
“I was eating my sub after weighing in, drinking Pedialyte, drinking water and (Sirignano) comes up to me and says, ‘You’re wrestling today,’” Coffell said. “He said, ‘If you hold your knee or mess with your knee and it looks like it hurts at all, we’re going to pull you.’”
As Coffell started warming up, the anticipation swelled in the crowd. When he checked in and stepped on the mat, it exploded. When he won by pin in the first period, Goodrich had all of the momentum it needed to make it through.
“It was one of those things where no one really expected him to wrestle,” Sirignano said. “When we put him on the mat, the crowd just went crazy. That was as crazy as I heard our crowd all year.”
Coffell also received a void that night, and with three wins at the Team Finals, he finished the season 5-0. Two of those wins – over Delooff (fifth) and Brian Soto of Niles (seventh) – came against wrestlers who would go on to place at the Individual Finals.
While the caliber of opponent he defeated was impressive, it was how it happened that impressed Sirignano most.
“I think the most amazing thing about it was that on three weeks, he won in double overtime against the Lowell kid,” Sirignano said. “Blake was exhausted, I’m sure he was, but I don’t know if it was just mental toughness or what.”
Coffell said the pride of making his improbable return was overshadowed by the team’s loss in the championship match. But it is something he recognized.
He had to endure some more sadness the following week, as he was forced to watch the Individual Finals when he knew he belonged at that level.
“I think I cried both days when everyone started leaving,” Coffell said. “I went and sat up in one of the top rows away from everyone else. I had my head down, and I was crying. Knowing we could have had three finalists, eight qualifiers and eight placers if I wrestled.
“That’s when I started thinking again, ‘You’ve got college.’”
After going through a whirlwind of emotions and physical exertion over a four-month span, Coffell learned plenty about himself – mostly that he was never alone.
“Ken says that if I didn’t wrestle, we wouldn’t have had that shot, but it wasn’t just me that stepped up. It was the whole lineup,” Coffell said. “It was Sam Fisher going down to 152, Honour (Kline) going down to 189. Ryan Angelo, our 103-pounder, he got so much better. Having all those hard workers behind me, it really boosted me. Knowing all these guys are always going to be family, that just makes me really grateful to have Goodrich wrestling.”
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) Goodrich’s Blake Coffell looks to the fans after his win during the Division 2 Final against Lowell at Wings Event Center. (Middle) Coffell wrestles DeWitt’s Anthony Munoz during a Semifinal. (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.)