By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Dundee and Richmond have met in seven of the last nine Division 3 Wrestling Finals, and it’s hardly a shock they are the top-seeded teams heading into this weekend at Kalamazoo’s Wings Event Center.
But there are potential spoilers waiting. Remus Chippewa Hills is only three seasons removed from a title match appearance, and Whitehall brings 10 Individual Finals qualifiers and a pair of coaches with championship experience as it looks to make a move toward the top.
Below is a look at all eight teams competing in Division 3, listed by seed. Quarterfinal matches begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday, with Semifinals at noon Saturday and 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.
Record/rank: 24-2, No. 2
League finish: First in Blue Water Area Conference
Co-coaches: Brandon Day, 15th season (452-95); Preston Treend, third season (70-9)
Championship history: Eight MHSAA championships (most recent 2017), six runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Hunter Keller (22-4) soph., 112 Daniel McNichol (27-8) sr., 112 JD Gross (24-10) jr., 125 Austin Kilburn (22-6) jr., 130 Hunter Seguin (23-14) sr., 140 Hayden Bastian (26-5) sr., 145 Ethan Wyatt (16-11) sr., 171 Wesley Peters (30-11) fr., 215 Luke Davis (37-5) jr., 285 Dan McKiernan (29-14) soph.
Outlook: After winning the Division 3 Final in 2017 by tie-breaker criteria over Dundee, Richmond fell in the 2018 Final to Dundee 40-15. Among those back for possibly more are returning Finals placers McNichol, Bastian and junior Josh Barton. McNichol and Bastian are two of just four senior starters, but 13 starters and 14 Blue Devils total have at least 20 wins this winter. They once again eliminated No. 5 Algonac on the way to Kalamazoo.
Record/rank: 15-5, No. 1
League finish: First in Lenawee County Athletic Association
Coach: Tim Roberts, 20th season (512-74-1)
Championship history: Ten MHSAA championships (most recent 2018), seven runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Casey Swiderski (39-2) fr., 112. Austin Fietz (32-9) soph., 135 Jonathon White (32-9) sr., 135 Tyler Swiderski (22-10) soph., 140 Christian Killion (38-5) jr., 145. Grant Ott (32-11) sr., 154. Stoney Buell (38-8) soph., 171 Jaxon Guinn (16-6) jr.
Outlook: Dundee is wrestling for its fifth Division 3 championship over the last seven seasons, with a roster that impressively has just three seniors and five juniors – and five upperclassmen expected to start. But Buell is a reigning individual champion and Killion and Tyler Swiderski were Finals runners-up a year ago, while Fietz, White, Guinn and senior Cal McAvoy also were placers.
Record/rank: 28-2, No. 3
League finish: First in West Michigan Conference
Co-coaches: Justin and Collin Zeerip, first seasons (28-2)
Championship history: Class C runner-up 1984.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Aidan Weiler (33-9) fr., 125 Max Brown (38-4) fr., 135 Jacob Haynes (14-12) soph., 140 Marco Moore (21-18) soph., 145 Kyler Honore (30-12) jr., 152 Ira Jenkins (34-6) fr., 160 Trenton Blanchard (34-6) sr., 189 Kayleb Venema (40-2) jr., 215 Allen Powers (37-4) sr., 215 Jarrean Sargeant (34-10) jr.
Outlook: Under the Hesperia champion Zeerip brothers, Whitehall is making its fourth straight Quarterfinal appearance and move up a seed this season after reaching the Semifinals a year ago. With just two seniors on the roster, and five freshman starters, this is another team with an exciting future to go with the present. Blanchard, Venema and Powers were Finals placers a year ago.
#4 Remus Chippewa Hills
Record/rank: 27-1, No. 4
League finish: First in Central State Activities Association Gold
Coach: Kevin Edwards, first season (27-1)
Championship history: Division 3 runner-up 2016.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Taylor Gibson (35-11) jr., 112 Daylin Wittig (30-6) soph., 119 Gavin Miller (22-15) soph., 125 Carson Hayes (35-9) soph., 135 Bray Haynes (36-9) sr., 140 Mason Hayes (40-0) sr., 160 Trenten Wiggins (31-7) soph., 171 Gabriel Petoskey (36-11) jr., 189 Chayton Wiggins (45-1) jr., 215 Carl Whipple (27-7) soph., 285 Colby Roosa (35-1) soph.
Outlook: Chippewa Hills will wrestle in its eighth straight Quarterfinal hoping to advance to a fifth straight Semifinal. Edwards took over this season for longtime coach Nate Ethridge after serving as an assistant during Ethridge’s 18 running the program. Haynes was a Finals placer last season and is one of four repeat qualifiers. There are only three senior starters, but 12 of 14 in the expected lineup have won at least 25 matches this winter.
Record/rank: 27-5, No. 6
League finish: Second in Mid-Michigan Activities Conference
Coach: Steve Barnette, seventh season (140-76)
Championship history: Nine MHSAA championships (most recent 2005), five runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Jake Elasivich (42-7) soph., 145 Robert Skinner (26-11) soph., 171 Jack Kalakay (34-7) jr., 285 Griffin Barnette (45-4) jr.
Outlook: Montrose is returning to the Quarterfinals for the first time since the last championship season of 2005, and defeated No. 7 Birch Run to help get here. The Rams finished second in their league to another contender, Division 4 power New Lothrop. Watch for them moving forward – they have one senior starter but 10 underclassmen in this weekend’s lineup. Elasivich and Griffin Barnette were Finals placers last season.
Record/rank: 33-6, No. 8
League finish: First in Tri-Valley Conference Central
Coach: Randy Miniard, eighth season (188-92)
Championship history: Has not appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Dametrius Castillo (32-4) soph., 125 Solomon Rosales (25-11) soph., 130 Josiah Baltierra (27-18) fr., 135 Jarrett Ferman (32-3) jr., 152 Justin VanBlaricum (28-9) jr.
Outlook: The Panthers are making their second straight Quarterfinal trip coming off a third consecutive league title, and also moved up a seed from a year ago. Alma got past No. 10 Lake Odessa Lakewood to clinch what was also its second Regional title ever. Castillo also achieved some individual history for the program with its first Finals championship last season since 1993. There is only one senior on the roster and 10 underclassmen in the lineup for this weekend.
Record/rank: 24-9, unranked
League finish: Third in Wolverine Conference
Coach: Colin Burandt, fourth season (76-35)
Championship history: Two runner-up finishes (most recent 1998).
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Dylan Elmore (45-5) sr.; 285 Wyatt Bailey (33-11) soph.
Outlook: Dowagiac returned to the Quarterfinals last season for the first time since 2004 and now has made two straight. The experience should continue to pay off as the team will graduate only three seniors with only two expected to start this weekend. Six wrestlers have at least 30 wins this winter.
Record/rank: 12-1, No. 9
League finish: Second in Tri-Valley Conference Central
Coach: BJ Cline, fourth season (57-19)
Championship history: Four runner-up finishes (most recent 2001).
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Kye Andrews (37-8) jr., 119 Lance Clark (26-6) soph., 145 Trevor Robinson (40-2) sr., 285 Kevin Smith (36-8) sr.
Outlook: Shepherd is returning to the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, with three senior starters who all have at least 30 wins and also nine underclassmen among expected starters. Robinson was the Finals runner-up at 135 last season, and he also was a runner-up in 2016.
PHOTO: Remus Chippewa Hills, here at its league tournament, is one of the few to break into a Division 3 Final over the last decade. (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.)