By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
A single afternoon in middle school set Skyler Crespo down a path that would lead to four Individual Finals wrestling championships. It was the day he quit the sport.
The withdrawal was brief — only hours, really — but it happened. He ripped his headgear off and stormed out of the practice room, claiming he was done.
And for anyone who knows the Mendon senior, who is less than a week removed from becoming the 28th grappler in Michigan High School Athletic Association history to pull off the rare four-peat, it’s hard to believe.
In a combat sport where confidence is crucial, Crespo certainly hasn’t lacked any since his freshman year. He doesn’t dispute that he’s brash at times, nor does he have any desire to soften his image. After all, the approach he’s used has served him well.
Perhaps it’s because Crespo, who is slated to wrestle at Michigan State University next year, knows how it feels to be utterly humbled – and that he never wants to experience it again. That happened six years ago. And it broke him. It was an experiment conducted by Mendon head coach Caleb Stephenson, who wanted to see what the seventh grader was made of at the time.
Stephenson had two of the program’s top varsity wrestlers, Jonah Grimm and Caleb Hinkle, take turns lighting 90-pound Crespo up. In the past, these mismatched sessions were tame. This time around, Stephenson instructed his accomplished veterans, who had 40 pounds on the youngster, to show no mercy.
“I remember it vividly,” Stephenson said. “It was brutal, man. He cried and he was mentally hurting. To this day, I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do. But I felt he was ready.”
Each time Crespo was taken down, which was often, Stephenson yelled out the increasingly lopsided score. It got ugly.
“From there, we just kind of built him back up,” Stephenson said. “It was a tear-him-down-build-him-up kind of thing. I can remember (Grimm and Hinkle) looking at me like, ‘Is this ok? Are you sure you want us to just go pound this kid again? And the answer was yes. It might have been after that moment that there was real trust. We had a special bond that fostered his great career and a friendship. It has been amazing.”
“There were a lot of times I wanted to quit and didn’t want to practice anymore,” Crespo admitted. “I give a lot of credit to Caleb to make sure I was always on the right track, doing the right things and always pushing me. And, obviously, my parents didn’t let me quit.”
Two years later, Grimm and Hinkle were at The Palace of Auburn Hills when Crespo won his first Division 4 Finals championship at 125 pounds as a freshman.
It was the culmination of a year where there were several signals that Crespo had what it took to make history.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult it was his freshman year to win,” Stephenson said. “He had to go through the state runner-up in the District Final, the returning state champ in the Regional Final and the same kid again in the state Finals — a three-time finalist. Bursting on the scene is exactly what he did, and that’s what we expected him to do.”
Behind the scenes, Crespo put in the work. Stephenson said he could count on one hand how many times Crespo missed an offseason workout over seven years.
“He was always the one in the room with me,” Stephenson said. “He was the stalwart. He was the backbone. He was the kid that always said yes.”
Winning a 135-pound title as a sophomore, a 4-2 decision over Onaway’s Matthew Grant, got everyone’s attention, but the whispers from doubters ended up being louder to Crespo than the cheers.
“I always kind of had a chip on my shoulder,” Crespo said. “I never thought I got as much respect as I deserved. I always had the mentality that people didn’t believe in me, and I wanted to prove everyone wrong. I used that swagger to help me wrestle better.”
As a junior, he closed out the season with a dominating performance in the 140-pound finals with a 13-0 major decision against Bad Axe’s Ryan Wehner. Last week, Crespo completed his mission with an 11-0 major decision versus Clinton’s Kent McCombs in the 145-pound championship match. During his last two championship runs, Crespo bonused his way through the MHSAA Tournament.
“The more I think about it, the more I can appreciate it,” said Crespo, who finished his high school career with a 211-5 record, a couple of days after the MHSAA Finals. “Anything less than four was going to be a disappointment.”
“Hopefully it creates a standard for people. I think people don’t realize how good of a coach Caleb Stephenson is, really, and how much credit he deserves in all this. I’ll remember the relationship we have as people, not just because of wrestling. He’s just a genuine and good person.”
Even though Crespo fully expected to accomplish his goal, when it happened, it was a bit surreal as he celebrated with his family who had sacrificed a lot to help him get there, and the coaches who had ridden the emotional ride with him.
“It felt pretty good,” Crespo said. “I got to finally relax and feel a little satisfied, I guess.”
“It was really emotional,” Stephenson said. I can’t fathom how special it is. I don’t even know how to explain it to others. This kid has taken me on a really amazing journey. I’m appreciative to him for that. There are only 28 coaches who have gotten to do this, too. I feel special to have been with him. Skyler listened to everything. He soaked it all in. He is incredible like that, and it’s going to be profitable for him at the next level, too.”
A couple of days later, though, Crespo was back to being, well, Crespo, with new goals concerning the BIG Ten and NCAA.
“He texted me (Tuesday) and said, ‘I’m not satisfied,’” Stephenson said. “That’s just who he is.”
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) Mendon's Skyler Crespo takes control during his semifinal win over Leslie's Grant Weber. (Middle) Crespo leads wrestlers onto the Ford Field mats as one of the flag bearers at the Individual Finals. (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.)