By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Significant change will spark this season’s Division 2 Wrestling Quarterfinals at Wings Event Center, as five teams will be competing in Friday’s round that did not a year ago – including two programs wrestling for the first time at this level of the tournament.
Yet amid the buzz, a constant in Michigan high school wrestling will be standing tall.
Lowell is back and the top seed in Division 2 after winning its record sixth-straight MHSAA Finals championship in Kalamazoo a year ago. In fact, the Red Arrows are the only team among the top five seeds in this division that has won a Finals title.
But extending the streak won’t come easily – especially considering the second and third-seeded teams are led by two of the most successful and longest-serving coaches in MHSAA wrestling history.
The Division 2 Quarterfinals will be wrestled at 6:45 p.m. Friday. Top seed Lowell will wrestle Croswell-Lexington, No. 2 Gaylord will take on New Boston Huron, No. 3 Stevensville Lakeshore will face Mason and No. 4 Warren Woods-Tower will match up with Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. Semifinals are noon Saturday, with the championship match that afternoon at 3:45 p.m. All matches this weekend will be viewable live on a subscription basis on MHSAA.tv. For Friday’s schedule and results throughout, check the MHSAA Wrestling page.
Below is a look at all eight teams competing in Division 2, listed by seed.
Record/rank: 12-4, No. 1
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference White
Coach: R.J. Boudro, sixth season (117-18)
Championship history: Nine MHSAA championships (most recent 2019), six runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Nick Kohorn (24-11) sr., 112 Ramsy Mutchler (26-17) soph., 125 James Link (27-14) jr., 130 Zeth Strejc (22-12) jr., 135 Dawson Jankowski (26-10) sr., 140 William Link (25-10) jr., 145 Austin Boone (34-0) sr., 152 James Fotis (23-5) sr., 160 Doak Dean (27-8) jr., 171 Jacob Lee (30-9) jr., 215 Jacob Hough (27-9) sr., 215 Keegan Nugent (32-6) jr., 285 Tyler Deloof (18-5) sr., 285 Grant Pratt (26-11) sr.
Outlook: Add to the Red Arrows’ record run that they qualified a full 14 for next week’s Individual Finals, and that alone tells a pretty good story of the team’s continued dominance this winter. Some lineup maneuvering allows Lowell to get 13 of its 14 individual qualifiers into a team match, with freshman Landon Miller (103/19-8) joining the star-loaded group. Boone will wrestle for his fourth individual championship next weekend, and Korhorn was a Finals runner-up in 2018. Deloof, Mutschler, Fotis, Dean and Lee were individual placers last season.
Record/rank: 30-0, No. 2
League finish: First in Big North Conference
Coach: Jerry LaJoie, 26th season (729-135-2)
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2018.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Brendan Smith (34-9) fr., 112 Gabe Thompson (30-8) soph., 125 John Sosa (35-2) sr., 125 Will Sides (38-5) sr., 130 Rico Brown (30-1) sr., 145 Chayse LaJoie (33-0) sr., 160 Jacob McKnight (38-2) sr.
Outlook: Gaylord fell by only 10 to Lowell in last season’s Semifinal match and hasn’t lost since, reaching this weekend with a 33-30 Regional Final win over No. 3 DeWitt. Chayse LaJoie just missed on a third individual title in 2019, falling in a 3-2 decision in the 125 championship match, and he too hasn’t lost again. Sosa and McKnight also were Finals placers last season, and junior Quinn Schultz (189/40-8) was a qualifier a year ago although he did not make the final weekend this season. Two freshmen also have broken 40 wins – Gus James (119/40-7) and Brayden Gautreau (152/43-6).
#3 Stevensville Lakeshore
Record/rank: 19-1, No. 6
League finish: First in Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference
Coach: Bruce Bittenbender, 50th season (939-264-2)
Championship history: Class B runner-up in 1986 and 1994.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Cameron Litaker (26-6) soph., 119 Aaron Lucio (34-5) fr., 130 Micah Hanau (36-3) soph., 135 Shane Williams (38-2) sr., 160 Case Rohl (18-6) sr., 215 Zeke Rohl (34-5) sr.
Outlook: Bittenbender – the state’s winningest coach by more than 100 matches – will lead Lakeshore to the Quarterfinals for the 11th time in the 32-year history of the team format and after the Lancers missed a year ago. They advanced this time with Regional wins over No. 9 Niles and Battle Creek Harper Creek. Litaker, Hanau, Williams and Zeke Rohl all were Finals placers last season, and junior James Harris (145/35-7) has been another big winner this winter.
#4 Warren Woods-Tower
Record/rank: 17-6, No. 5
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference Red
Co-coaches: Greg Mayer and Russell Correll, 20th seasons (389-249)
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2017.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Tyler Daniel (33-11) soph., 119 Joe Haynes (44-3) jr., 119 Gavin Shoobridge (24-12) jr., 125 Josh Howey (34-7) soph., 130 Dru Wilson (39-7) jr., 135 Mathew Booth (31-14) jr., 152 Tim Lewis (30-14) sr., 160 Ryan Radvansky (35-12) fr., 171 Omari Embree (24-2) soph.
Outlook: Tower has become a regular at the Quarterfinals with this its fifth-straight trip and sixth in seven seasons. The Titans again made the Semifinals last season and are seeded to do the same with a lineup including five seniors but eight Finals qualifiers who are juniors or younger. Embree was last season’s champion at 160 as a freshman, while Haynes was runner-up at 119 and Howey also placed at the Individual Finals. Wilson joined Haynes as a placer in 2018.
#5 Muskegon Reeths-Puffer
Record/rank: 25-1, No. 7
League finish: First in O-K Black
Coach: Matt Brink, 14th season (269-117)
Championship history: Has not appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Jacob Blawat (40-7) jr., 152 James Rozycki (42-4) jr., 189 Colby Stephenson (45-2) sr., 215 Hunter McCall (41-1) sr.
Outlook: Brink, a three-time individual champion at Fruitport, has led Reeths-Puffer to its first Regional championship to go with six straight District and league titles. The Rockets opened the postseason with a four-point District win over No. 8 Whitehall and also got past Allendale by nine in the Regional Final to earn this first-time opportunity. McCall brings experience on the big stage; he finished third at 215 last season. Nine starters total have at least 30 wins – junior Thade Radosa (145/42-3) just missed qualifying for the Individual Finals but is another top contributor.
Record/rank: 23-2, unranked
League finish: First in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Coach: Brian Martel, 17th season (486-110)
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2006), one runner-up finish.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Tayden Miller (39-5) fr., 130 Tanner Miller (41-1) sr., 285 Jack Gilchrist (40-2) sr.
Outlook: A three-time Division 2 champion during the first decade of the 2000s, Mason is back at the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2013. The Bulldogs have won 11 straight District titles but frequently have run into state-ranked competition at the Regional level – and this time they advanced with a 33-27 upset of No. 4 Eaton Rapids in the Regional Final. Tanner Miller finished fifth at 130 last season and is one of seven senior starters finishing their careers memorably.
#7 New Boston Huron
Record/rank: 21-4, No.10
League finish: First in Huron League
Coach: Jack Shulaw, 17th season (371-117)
Championship history: Class B champion 1978 and 1981.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 135 Dylan Carr (36-11) sr., 160 Nelson Poet (37-4) sr., 171 Cody Brenner (44-2) jr., 171 Kael Wisler (32-5) soph., 189 Braden Damiani (37-5) sr., 215 Brendan Damiani (37-6) sr., 285 Tyler Short (35-9) jr.
Outlook: New Boston Huron won its first Regional title since 2003, with a 38-37 win over Gibraltar Carlson sending the Chiefs to Kalamazoo. Like Mason, Huron has had plenty of success in earlier rounds, following up nine league titles over the last decade with their eighth District championship during that time two weeks ago. Poet was the individual runner-up last season at 160, and Brenner, Braden Damiani, Carr and senior Kaleb Rosen (145/36-4) also were Finals placers.
Record/rank: 31-9, unranked
League finish: Third in Blue Water Area Conference
Coach: Joe Lilly, 22nd season (449-183)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 130 Christopher Lilly (49-1) sr., 135 Xzavier Suess (43-3) jr., 171 Vincent Scaramuzzino (46-4) jr.
Outlook: Croswell-Lexington also celebrated its first Regional title last week after winning its sixth District title over the last seven seasons and emerging from a BWAC that includes Division 3 second seed Richmond. Christopher Lilly is the reigning individual champion at 135 and Scaramuzzino was fourth at 152 last season.
PHOTO: A Mason wrestler works toward a pin during Individual District competition Feb. 15. (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.)