By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
If seedings hold true, we will have a new Division 4 wrestling champion Saturday for the first time since 2014.
But that next champion wouldn't really be new; Hudson is the top seed entering Friday’s Quarterfinals and won every Division 4 title from 2009-2013 before finishing runner-up to New Lothrop the last three years. But if the Tigers trip up, the Hornets – and six more teams seeking first wrestling championships – will be ready to pounce.
Below is a look at all eight teams competing in Division 4, listed by seed. Quarterfinal matches begin at 12 p.m. Friday, with Semifinals at 9 a.m. Saturday and the championship match at 3:30 p.m. All matches this weekend will be streamed live on a subscription basis on MHSAA.tv. For Friday’s schedule and results throughout, check the MHSAA Wrestling page.
The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.
Record/rank: 16-9, No. 1
League finish: Second in Lenawee Country Athletic Association
Coach: Scott Marry, 29th season (749-175)
Championship history: Five MHSAA championships (most recent 2013), three runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Tucker Scholl (27-2) soph., 119 Jordan Hamdan (41-2) soph., 130 Scotty Torres (23-11) jr., 189 Tylor Grames (35-11) sr., 285 Zach Bailey (35-9) sr., 285 Isiah Krizeki (26-14) soph.
Outlook: After three straight runner-up finishes to New Lothrop – last year the closest falling in the Final by eight points after entering as the third seed – Hudson is on top again in this bracket. After finished second in the LCAA this season to Division 3 second seed Dundee, the Tigers have dominated the postseason and took down second-ranked Manchester 59-8 in their Regional Final. Scholl and Hamdan were individual champions last season at 103 and 112, respectively.
#2 Leroy Pine River
Record/rank: 30-4, No. 6
League finish: First in Mid-Michigan Wrestling Conference
Coach: Tim Jones, 18th season (501-116)
Championship history: Class C runner-up 1991.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Holly Bailor (27-13) sr., 112 Dylan Stephens (35-10) jr., 119 Tyler Signor (38-12) jr., 125 Jacob Roberts (39-7) jr., 130 Andy Park (51-1) jr, 135 Brocko Nelson (41-12) fr., 140 Justin Cole (35-7) sr., 145 Tucker Fansler (27-15) sr., 152 Malachi Holmes (38-20) soph., 160 Joe Rigling (44-7) sr., 171 Tim Rizor (25-11) fr., 189 Raden Holmes (45-6) sr., 215 Bryan McCurry (40-6) soph.
Outlook: Pine River bumped up to the second seed after making the Semifinals last season as a seventh (by upsetting No. 2 seed Decatur by a point in the Quarterfinal). The Bucks have won 17 league and District titles during Jones’ 18 seasons and Regional titles six times – but a win Friday would give the team its most victories in one season under its longtime leader. Stephens, McCurry and Park all were Individual Finals placers last season.
#3 Carson City-Crystal
Record/rank: 29-8, No. 7
League finish: First in Central Michigan Athletic Conference
Coach: Kacy Datema, seventh season (157-63)
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2000 and 2001.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Nolan Datema (44-8) soph.; 103 Jamison Ward (48-2) fr.; 119 Daryn Shepler (38-12) soph.; 140 Braxton Seida (45-4) soph.; 152 Spencer Shook (17-6) sr., 171 Daniel Smith (38-13) soph.; 189 Brian Yeakey (39-9) fr.
Outlook: The Eagles won their fifth straight league and District titles and are back at the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2014. They navigated one of the closest Regionals in any division, downing St. Louis and Hart by a combined seven points to advance. There are only two seniors and one expected to start; Carson City-Crystal could be building for a nice run with nine underclassmen among its top 14.
Record/rank: 30-8, No. 9
League finish: Second in Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference
Coach: Chad Butters, fourth season (105-15)
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2002 and 2003.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Ben Modert (42-5) fr., 160 Gavin Alger (34-15) sr., 171 David Erwin (48-2) sr., 189 Chase Gibson (48-5) jr.
Outlook: Bronson is back at the Quarterfinals for the first time since making the Semifinals in 2013 and after winning a fourth straight District title under Butters, formerly a longtime assistant in the program. The Vikings took down BCS champion White Pigeon and No. 8 Mendon in the District and then Reading and No. 4 Decatur at the Regional. Erwin and senior Nathan Caudill (29-4, 285) both were Individual Finals placers last season; along with those two, the four heaviest weights in the starting lineup are a combined 160-15 this winter.
Record/rank: 17-3, No. 3
League finish: First in Big 8 Conference
Coach: Matt Darling, first season (17-3)
Championship history: Lower Peninsula Class D runner-up 1984.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 125 Tyler Teague (33-8) sr., 135 Noah Teague (31-7) jr., 140 Sean O’Hearon (37-0) sr., 160 Zach Betz (30-11) jr., 215 Nick Cooper (36-3) sr., 285 Luke Overweg (33-4) jr.
Outlook: New coach, same story for Springport, which repeated as league and District champion with Darling now leading the way and enters as the fifth seed for the second straight season – the Spartans advanced to the Semifinals and fell to eventual champion New Lothrop by only eight points. Cooper was the Division 4 individual champion at 189 last season and Noah Teague and O’Hearon both were Finals placers.
#6 New Lothrop
Record/rank: 14-8, unranked
League finish: Second in Genesee Area Conference
Coach: Jeff Campbell, 16th season (406-78)
Championship history: 15 MHSAA championships (most recent 2016), four runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Logan Wolford (25-14) fr., 112 Logan Zell (26-17) soph., 119 Tommy Malloy (30-10) jr., 135 Austin Wolford (35-7) soph., 140 Justin Carnahan (18-13) fr., 145 Cole Wendling (29-12) jr., 152 Zackery Riley (26-15) soph., 160 Austin Wendling (27-19) soph., 189 Erik Birchmeier (26-1) sr.
Outlook: Coming off three straight Division 4 team championships, New Lothrop has to be arguably the scariest sixth seed in MHSAA Finals history. The Hornets graduated three individual champions after last season, but Birchmeier is back after winning the title at 171, and Malloy and Austin Wolford also were Finals placers. Birchmeier also is the only senior starter and joined by nine underclassmen who should speed up New Lothrop’s rebuilding effort.
Record/rank: 28-7, No. 5
League finish: First in Tri-County Conference
Coach: Jeff Rolland, fourth season (101-33)
Championship history: Has not appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Christian Minard (31-11) soph., 112 Noah Comar (46-0) soph., 130 Anthony Stockdale (29-17) jr., 135 Fletcher Mellinger (27-16) sr., 145 Jacob Phillips (38-11) sr., 189 Trent Sexton (37-13) jr., 215 Austin Popp (33-7) sr., 285 Josh Brown (36-7) sr.
Outlook: Clinton is back at the Quarterfinals for the second time in four seasons under Rolland. The Redskins have given up a total of 24 points over four postseason matches. Comar was the individual runner-up at 112 last season and Popp also was a Finals placer; despite graduating three other placers, Clinton boasts eight upperclassmen among its starters.
Record/rank: 22-3, unranked
League finish: Does not wrestle in a league.
Coach: Bob Miles, 12th season (192-127)
Championship history: Upper Peninsula runner-up 1968.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Zach McGowan (26-5) sr., 125 Nick Miles (31-12) jr.
Outlook: The Mustangs are making their second straight appearance at the Quarterfinals after winning their third straight District title. Nick Miles also was an Individual Finals qualifier last season, and McGowan is one of five seniors on the team – a solid number of veterans for a roster of only 13 that voids two weights because it is unable to fill them.
PHOTO: A New Lothrop wrestler (right) competes during his school's Hall of Fame Tournament on Jan. 7. (Click to see more by Varsity Monthly.)
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.)