Excuses are not permitted inside the Constantine High School wrestling room.
Despite being 15-1 with wins over several top-10 teams in the state, the Falcons are not among the programs ranked in Division 3 as of March 2. Constantine has defeated three of the best teams (Bronson, Union City and Lawton) in Division 4 so far this year and boasts four returning Individual Finals qualifiers.
But because Constantine has been tripped up at Team Regionals since 2013, seventh-year head coach Dale Davidhizar believes his squad has more to prove before it gets the recognition it might deserve.
A shortened season due to COVID-19, which eliminated big weekend tournaments that best prepare athletes for the grueling postseason, won’t be used as a defense for individuals or the team coming up short this month.
“With our senior leadership that we have, I think the kids will be ready to go and rolling without a problem,” Davidhizar said. “We’ve filled our team schedule with some pretty good teams throughout the year.”
Two of those seniors, both captains, have endured plenty of adversity. Neither one of them has let it derail them. Due to various injuries over the years and waiting their turns behind talented upperclassmen, Gage Ensign (152 pounds) and Isaac Hall (189) finally reached 100 career victories in February as they eye returns to the Finals.
Ensign placed seventh in Division 3 in 2019 at 130 pounds and opted not to duck anyone the following year as a junior. In 2020, a stacked Division 3 Regional at 140 pounds resulted in four wrestlers eventually snagging the first, second, third and fifth podium positions at Ford Field at the championship. Ensign was not one of them.
“He wanted to stay in the toughest weight class in the state in any region,” Davidhizar said of Ensign’s competitiveness. “He took on the challenge and fell a little short. Those were some seriously tough kids he went after.”
At 12-1 this year, Ensign, who’s battling a nagging injury, hopes to finish out his career with a strong run at 152.
“This year I’m an underdog,” Ensign said. “I sort of embrace it, and I feel more relaxed in practice and in meets. I have nothing to lose now. I was pretty dang happy (to reach 100 wins) because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to wrestle this year. I’m just happy to be able to be on the mat.”
Hall stepped up as a freshman at 171 and finished around .500. He missed time as a sophomore due to an injury — about a third of the season — but accumulated more than 40 victories in 2020 at 189 en route to a fourth-place Finals finish. Hall dropped his opening match by fall in the first period but went on to win four consecutive bouts in the consolation rounds. He’s currently 16-0.
“I’m very happy that he got to that milestone (100 wins),” Davidhizar said. “For him to reach that milestone is a huge deal for him and his whole family. It really shows the work he has put in. Without putting too much pressure on him, I feel he should be in the Finals. He’s the only returning state placer at 189 in Division 3. He’s put in even more work this year. Troy Demas has really been able to push him past some barriers, and it’s going to show at the end of the year.”
Hall broke through with his 100th win against Vicksburg, bumping up to 215 to avoid a victory by forfeit.
“I was just excited to get back to wrestling and prove what I could do this year,” Hall said. “I wanted my 100th win to be a real match, not a void. It was pretty awesome. I wish I would have hit it sooner, but I’m glad I made it there.
“I’m confident we will make it to team state this year. I don’t know what it’s like to make it to state (as a team), and I’d like to experience that. Individually, I’d like to make it to the Finals and get that state championship.”
Boe Eckman has been dinged up this year, but he’s another Falcons senior leader with a wealth of Finals experience. At 215, Eckman was edged by two points in the Division 3 title match last year by Richmond’s Luke Davis. Eckman racked up three pins on his way to the championship bout.
While trying to get healthy this year, the Falcons have gotten a boost from freshman Bennett VandenBerg, who has bounced between 215 and 189 and has racked up double-digit wins already.
Senior Dylan Reiff made it to Ford Field last year at 130 and finished eighth. He’s 14-2 this season at the same weight class. Sophomore Troy Demas (171) and junior Eric Demas are both 14-2, and senior Chuck Taylor has a 15-1 record.
“Our practices, they go hard,” Davidhizar said. “It shows the level of skill those kids bring in and getting some of those freshmen and sophomores to the level of state qualifiers and state placers. Dylan Reiff hadn’t wrestled in three years and he came in last year for the first time and was a state placer. I attribute that to wrestling with Gage and Eric Demas. I attribute that to practice partners and how the guys practice in our room.
“Boe Eckman and Isaac Hall have been practice partners since seventh grade. Isaac works his tail off to get where he is now, but Boe has helped him along tremendously. Boe had the higher skill when Isaac was just starting out, and now Isaac has gotten to that point. That’s teammates working hard together. Kids are pushing everyone in the room.”
With a seasoned group in the upper weights and some pieces falling into place in the lighter slots, Constantine continues to gain momentum as the season winds down.
“I thought, as a whole, we were probably going to be one of the best teams that I’ve coached in the seven years since I’ve taken over the high school (program),” Davidhizar said. “We’re pretty solid. With our senior leadership that we have with our five core seniors, I thought we were going to be pretty tough to handle for anybody in the state.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Constantine’s Gage Ensign faces off with an opponent this season. (Middle) Isaac Hall’s arm is raised in victory, one of more than 100 during his career. (Photos by Terena Reif.)
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.)