By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Often, the most intriguing bouts heading into a weekend of wrestling at The Palace of Auburn Hills are scheduled somewhere in the middle weights.
Keep an eye out for returning finalists Dan Perry of Lapeer and Ali Wahab of Dearborn Heights Crestwood locking up again at 285 pounds after Perry won 3-2 in last season's championship match to finish undefeated and hand Wahab his only loss of 2014-15.
They are two of 10 contenders we’ve broken out below among many to watch this weekend at the Division 1 Individual Finals. Follow all the matches beginning with Thursday's first round on a subscription basis live on MHSAA.TV, and click here for results at MHSAA.com. And come back to Second Half this weekend as we’ll interview all 14 title winners.
112: Max Johnson, Davison senior (27-0) – The champion at this weight in 2014 slid to fifth last season, but he’s coming off helping Davison to the team runner-up finish last weekend and is considered the favorite again.
112: Mike Mars, Westland John Glenn sophomore (48-2) – Last season’s champion at 103 pounds has lost to only Warren Woods Tower’s Elijuh Weaver, who Mars beat in last season’s Final, and another favorite at this weight in New Baltimore Anchor Bay’s Jack Medley.
119: AJ Facundo, Davison sophomore (28-9) – Last season’s champion at 112 might have a few more losses than other contenders, but he was one of the few to win all three of his matches at last weekend’s Team Final and beat an equally-impressive field to emerge a year ago.
135: Ben Freeman, Walled Lake Central junior (38-0) – Last season’s champion at 125 has only one high school loss, which came when he was a freshman and still went on to win the Division 1 title at 103.
140: Dylan Steward, Grand Ledge senior (45-1) – Steward won the Division 1 championship at this weight last season despite a loss at his Regional, and his loss this season came in December to another reigning champion, Dresden Simon of Dansville.
145: Nathan Atienza, Livonia Franklin junior (53-0) – Atienza may have surprised only a bit last season reaching the 140 Final with four losses, but he’s the top seed and favorite this time around.
160: Blake Montrie, Temperance Bedford senior (47-1) – After winning the championship at 152 last season, in overtime, Montrie has again lost only once, to Dundee’s Sean Sterling in December.
215: Luke Ready, Brighton senior (37-1) – The reigning champion at this weight is also, predictably, the top seed this time and is the only competitor at his weight with fewer than three losses.
285: Dan Perry, Lapeer senior (50-2) – As noted above, Perry won one of the most exciting matches of the 2015 Finals and can expect something similar in his final high school match before continuing at University of Michigan next season.
285 – Ali Wahab, Dearborn Heights Crestwood senior (57-0) – He fell to Perry in last season’s Final only 3-2, and it was his only loss of the season; Wahab can finish with a little revenge on his way to continuing his career at Old Dominion.
Other 2015 runners-up: Southgate Anderson junior Donte Rivera-Garcia (125, 51-2, 112 in 2015), Bay City Western junior Noah Schoenherr (130, 45-2, D2 119 in 2015), Dearborn Fordson senior Abe Ajami (140, 38-3, 130 in 2015), Kalamazoo Loy Norrix senior Nick May (189, 47-0, 189 in 2015).
Also undefeated: Ann Arbor Pioneer junior Rayvon Foley (103, 54-0), Bloomfield Hills senior Kajuan Caldwell (145, 23-0), Utica Eisenhower senior Owen Donovan (145, 45-0), Hartland senior Sage Castillo (152, 55-0).
More of note: Detroit Catholic Central freshman Kevon Davenport (119, 43-3), Monroe senior Carl Antrassian (119, 52-2), Davison senior Deven Perez (125, 35-6), Oxford senior Alex Hrisopoulos (140, 46-5), Holt junior Kolin Leyrer (152, 38-3), Lapeer senior Devon Pingel (171, 47-3), Davison junior Brenden McRill (189, 34-2).
The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTO: Lapeer’s Dan Perry and Crestwood’s Ali Wahab compete during last season’s Final at 285; they’re the favorites again this weekend. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
DUNDEE – How do you replace a legendary coach?
For the Dundee Vikings wrestling program, it takes two.
Nate Hall and Garrett Stevens opened practice last week as the new co-coaches of the ultra-successful Dundee wrestling program, taking the reins from Tim Roberts, one of the winningest coaches in state wrestling history.
“From day one, we’ve done a really good job of pushing each other and staying focused,” Stevens said. “The kids have been getting after it. Things are going well.”
Dundee’s wrestling program is a rich one. Roberts stepped down with a state-record 10 MHSAA Finals titles over his 23 seasons as head coach. In all 23 of those years, Dundee won District championships, and in 22 of those 23 years the Vikings won Regional titles. Roberts not only accumulated 10 Finals championship trophies, but he also won more than 500 dual matches.
Hall and Stevens have coached together for several years on the Dundee staff. Now they are dividing up duties and looking to start the next era of Vikings wrestling.
“We know what we are up against,” Hall said. “We have a strong tradition to keep on. We understand two people going at it is probably the better route.”
The move is not without precedent. In the conference that Dundee competes in – the Lenawee County Athletic Association – Clinton had co-coaches lead the Redwolves to the Division 4 championship two seasons ago. Division 3 powerhouse Richmond has utilized co-coaches in the sport as well.
“We sort of applied together,” Stevens said. “We thought we could do this.”
Dundee Athletic Director Ross Crow said he was hesitant at first to consider the co-coach idea, but after meeting with both realized it could work.
span>“After sitting down with them and having a lengthy discussion, I realized they have an extremely organized and articulated plan as to how they are carrying the torch moving forward,” Crow said. “Whenever I have a question, I either text or e-mail both of them on a group thread. They both chime in and more often than not, the answer is exactly the same for both of them. It's a really good fit, as they are close friends and have no egos.”
Stevens is a 2007 Dundee graduate. He wrestled for Roberts. His dad was a Dundee wrestler as well, graduating in the 1970s. Stevens brings his connection to the Dundee wrestling community to the table as well as years of coaching experience.
Hall is from nearby Blissfield, where he was an all-state wrestler. He wrestled for Grand Valley State’s club program and was a coach there as well. He returned to southeast Michigan to coach with his father – Adrian Madison head coach Scott Hall – and joined the Dundee staff when he became a physical education teacher at the middle school about five years ago.
As co-head coach, Nate Hall handles a lot of the organizational duties, especially anything involving the school district, since he works there. Stevens brings a technical side of the sport with him.
The duo believe they can make it work because of the chemistry between them.
“I was always more of a technical wrestler,” Stevens said. “I think Tim (Roberts) felt I could help connect with the kids and teach them how to do a few things differently.
“After I graduated from high school, I got away from wrestling for a while, but in 2011, Tim reached out to me and asked if I wanted to get back involved and it seemed like a no-brainer. I missed it. I liked being around him and there were some things I could bring to the table. I was chomping at the bit once the opportunity opened for me.”
Stevens said Roberts was wonderful to learn from because he was such a great person and sought out input from his staff.
“Tim’s approach to coaching was unique,” Stevens said. “He’s very open-minded and understands there is so much more to learn. You constantly want your kids and program to grow. Every year I coached with him, he changed something every year. He was constantly modifying, tweaking, and seeking out help and advice from others.”
Hall likes how things have started.
“It’s going very well so far,” Hall said. “Tim didn’t leave the well dry. He’s got an established program and an established wrestling community that has been supportive of both Garrett and I so far.
“We’ve got a tremendous senior class – three state champions and another kid that was third in the state last year. Their leadership is really going to be a huge aspect of our success this year.”
The Vikings also have 14 freshmen.
“We’ve hit the ground running,” Hall said. “We provide a lot of opportunities in the offseason for kids to get into the wrestling room and stay active. Most of our guys are active throughout. The freshmen are a real promising group that we can keep the ball rolling,” Hall said.
The veterans in the wrestling room include Kaden Chinavare, a Central Michigan University signee who won an Individual Finals title as a sophomore; Aiden Davis, a two-time Finals champ headed to Bucknell; and Braeden Davis, a Penn State University recruit looking for a fourth consecutive Finals title in 2023.
“The biggest thing with this group, I would say, is their willingness to push each other in the right manner,” Hall said. “We’ve got a lot of successful individuals, and they are already going out of their way to make sure each person around them is getting the most out of their reps they can get.
“The team chemistry is already a big part of it.”
Both coaches admit there is pressure to maintain a program that is not just known at the state level, but nationally.
“If you’re not feeling that pressure, maybe you’re not taking it as seriously as it needs to be taken,” Hall said. “We are here to help kids accomplish their goals, and pressure is a part of that – especially at the elite level a lot of our wrestlers want to compete at.”
Despite the turnover in coaching, Dundee’s goals remain high.
Dundee opens with the Grappler Gold, will go to Davison, then compete at a big invitational in Ohio. They Vikings will compete at Detroit Catholic Central and the Hudson Super 16 in late January.
“We always want to aim high,” Stevens said.
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Nate Hall, left, and Garrett Stevens walk together during the opening march at an MHSAA Team Finals; retired coach Tim Roberts is behind them, waving. (Middle) Stevens, top, and Hall stand with their retired coach and mentor at various events. (Below) Stevens and son Brady, and Hall and daughter Kimberly, celebrate the 2020 championship. (Top and below photos by Kathy Killion.)