Boiled down, this wrestling season has included a lot of new and a lot of different – but also a lot of opportunity for teams and athletes in all four divisions.
The new opportunities Friday for Division 2 Individual Wrestling Finals qualifiers might be considered the most bountiful of the weekend.
Only four returning champions are back in the field – meaning at least 10 new champs will be awarded. Only six of last season’s runners-up are back – so the championship matches at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena will be filled with wrestlers earning that experience for the first time.
Even among those returning champs, three are only juniors – and their senior seasons would take on some added historic context if they can enter next winter coming off a repeat.
Below we look at 10 title contenders to watch Friday in Division 2, plus list all of the top seeds heading into the tournament, champs and runners-up back from 2020 and every wrestler who will make the trip to Grand Rapids with an undefeated record.
Even then, we surely missed a few who will end up making headlines Friday – but make sure to come back to Second Half late that evening as we’ll interview and report on all 14 Division 2 champions.
Wrestling begins that day at 10 a.m., and this season it’s a one-day event. Spectators remain limited, but all matches will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv. See the MHSAA Wrestling Finals page for more information and to follow results this weekend.
112 Nolan Wertanen, St. Joseph junior (32-0) – The reigning champion at 103 is the top seed at this weight and brings in a combined 78-2 record over the last two seasons.
119 Jack Parker, Spring Lake senior (25-1) – He’s the top seed at this weight after finishing runner-up at 112 a year ago and seventh at 103 as a sophomore.
119 Grant Stahl, Mount Pleasant sophomore (27-1) – After coming in second and finishing 39-3 at 103 last season, Stahl enters this weekend as the second seed at this weight.
125 Joe Haynes, Warren Woods Tower senior (20-1) – Last season’s champion at 119 also was second at 119 as a sophomore and third at 103 as a freshman, and is 149-17 over his varsity career.
130 Trevor Marsman, Cedar Springs senior (28-0) – Last year’s runner-up at 119 is a combined 80-2 over the last two seasons and enters his last Finals as a top seed; he also finished seventh at 112 pounds as a sophomore.
135 Zeth Strejc, Lowell senior (19-3) – The top seed at this weight is wrestling for his first championship after finishing runner-up at 130 last year and eighth at 125 as a freshman.
140 Micah Hanau, Stevensville Lakeshore junior (22-0) – He’s another reigning champion coming off the 2020 title at 130 to go with his fifth place at 125 as a freshman.
152 Jacob Gonzales, Holly junior (17-0) – The reigning champion at this weight also hasn’t lost a match since freshman year and is a combined 123-3 over his first three seasons; he also took seventh at 135 in 2019.
189 Cody Brenner, New Boston Huron senior (23-2) – After finishing runner-up last season at 171, Brenner is the second seed at his weight this weekend; he also placed third at 171 as a sophomore and eighth at 160 as a freshman.
285 Keegan Nugent, Lowell senior (27-0) – Last season’s runner-up at 215 finished 35-8 in placing for the first time and has taken another jump with an undefeated record and top seed heading into his last Finals.
Additional No. 1 seeds: 103 RJ Thome, Fremont junior (31-0); 145 Logan Slominski, Sparta senior (34-0); 160 Doak Dean, Lowell senior (24-2); 171 Jacob Lee, Lowell senior (18-1); 189 Vincent Scaramuzzino, Croswell-Lexington senior (23-0); 215 CJ Krum, St. Johns senior (33-0).
Also undefeated: 103 Cody Richards, Monroe Jefferson junior (18-0); 112 Max Montgomery, Spring Lake senior (27-0); 112 Adrian Rosas, Southgate Anderson senior (18-0); 125 Aaron Lucio, Stevensville Lakeshore sophomore (20-0); 130 Zack Hall, Lake Fenton junior (25-0); 140 Carter Hinson, Zeeland East senior (21-0); 152 Jacob Halsey, St. Joseph junior (31-0); 189 Adam Haselius, Jackson Northwest sophomore (24-0); 215 Ian Norscia, Southgate Anderson senior (15-0).
PHOTO: Holly's Jacob Gonzales, left, wrestles for the 152-pound championship during last season’s Division 2 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.)