By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Eight Division 4 title hopefuls will be the first to take the mat at the first MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals weekend hosted by Central Michigan University’s McGuirk Arena.
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 10 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 results throughout, check the MHSAA Wrestling page.
The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.
#1 New Lothrop
Record/rank: 21-5, No. 1
League finish: Third in Genesee Area Conference Blue.
Coach: Jeff Campbell, 15th season (389-70)
Championship history: 14 MHSAA championships (most recent 2015), four runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Logan Zell (27-22) fr., 112 Tommy Malloy (39-12), soph.; 130 Austin Wolford, 30-15, fr., 140 Zack Riley (19-15) fr., 145 Cole Hersch (44-1) sr.; 152 Steven Garza II (50-1) sr.; 160 John Robinson (36-3) sr.; 171 Erik Birchmeier (28-2) jr.; 171 Brandon Henige (31-20) sr.; 215 Caleb Symons (48-1) sr.
Outlook: New Lothrop is favored to win a third straight Division 4 with a number of standouts who have been part of those previous title-winning teams. The Hornets are led in part by Garza, an individual champion at 145 last season, and Symons, who like last season enters Team Finals weekend with only one loss and was the runner-up at 189 in 2015. Hersch, another veteran standout, Malloy and junior Connor Krupp (16-4, 125) also are returning Finals placers.
Record/rank: 27-3, No. 3
League finish: First in Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Coach: Jack Richardson, first season (27-3)
Championship history: Has never finished among the top two teams in Finals competition.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Coy Helmuth (45-5) jr.; 130 Lucian Parish (43-5) sr.; Ethan May (47-3) jr.; Zac Checkley (43-13) jr.; 285 Logan Kennedy (45-5) jr.
Outlook: Richardson, a former standout at Grandville, brings back a team that missed its first championship appearance by only six points last season. Nine juniors and two seniors gained valuable experience during the run and under former longtime coach Brian Southworth. Senior Elijah Luth (37-8, 152) didn’t make the Individual Finals this time, but was a placer in 2015, and Kennedy placed in 2014. Decatur eliminated No. 8 Schoolcraft at the Regional.
Record/rank: 17-14, No. 2
League finish: Second in Lenawee County Athletic Association.
Coach: Scott Marry, 28th season (732-165)
Championship history: Five MHSAA championships (most recent 2013), runner-up 2014 and 2015.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Dylan Leathers (31-9) sr.; 103 Tucker Sholl (41-3) fr.; 112 Jordan Hamdan (44-6) fr.; 119 Carson Price (35-16) fr.; 145 Mason Lopinski (45-5) sr.; 160 Kyle Johnson (42-8) sr.; 189 Tylor Grames (45-6) jr.
Outlook: Hudson has made the championship match against New Lothrop the last two seasons, and the regular-season team record this winter can be overlooked given the difficulty of Hudson’s schedule. Another deep run would only put more fear into opponents for the next three seasons; seven Hudson starters are freshmen, and an eighth is a sophomore. Lopinski was an individual runner-up at 145 last season, while Johnson was the champion at 152 in 2014.
Record/rank: 36-7, No. 4
League finish: First in Central State Activities Association Silver.
Coach: Doug Baird, 13th season (437-38)
Championship history: Division 4 champion 2008, five runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 125 Davian Gowens (39-3) sr.; 140 Logan Eaves (28-9) sr.; 140 Trentyn Gleason (40-13) soph.; 145 Gerrit Yates (49-4) soph.; 171 Mark Workman (30-0) sr.; 285 Josh Ehrke (43-2) sr.
Outlook: Hesperia is continuing a dominating decade with its eighth appearance at Finals weekend over the last 10 seasons to go with the championship in 2008 and three of its five runner-up finishes all-time, the most recent coming in 2013. Yates was an individual runner-up last season at 135 and is one of eight underclassmen in the lineup. But there is experience; in addition to Yates last winter, Gowens was a champion in 2014 and Eaves and Workman were runners-up that season.
Record/rank: 28-6, No. 6
League finish: First in Big 8 Conference.
Co-coaches: David Pratt, 11th season (291-78)
Championship history: Class D runner-up 1984.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 125 Tyler Teague (46-6) jr.; 130 Noah Teague (41-11) soph.; 135 Sean O’Hearon (43-1) jr.; 145 Taylor Whitmore (43-5) sr.; 152 Zeth Caudill (38-3) sr.; 189 Nick Cooper (35-1) jr.; 215 Luke Overweg (30-22) soph.
Outlook: Springport is making its second Quarterfinals appearance in three seasons and third under Pratt after claiming its seventh straight league championship and 11th District title under the coach. The Spartans graduated three-time champion Jacob Cooper last spring, but junior Nick Cooper has picked up the mantle and finished runner-up last season at 171; Caudill, Noah Teague and O’Hearon all also were Individual Finals placers in 2015.
Record/rank: 23-6, No. 9
League finish: First in Cascades Conference.
Coach: Steve Vlcek, 26th season (524-187)
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2008.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Reese Fry (40-6) soph.; 119 Blake Belaire (36-11) soph.; 125 Miquel Grammatico (35-13) sr.; 130 Ethan Woods (44-2) jr.; 171 Trevor Humphrey (43-4) sr.; 189 Jordan Good (15-3) jr.; 285 Stevie Suliman (39-10) sr.
Outlook: Manchester returns to Finals weekend for the second straight season and seventh over the last decade, and with 10 upperclassmen in the lineup despite graduating a strong group last spring. Woods was the individual runner-up at 119 last season and also placed as a freshman, and Humphrey also placed in 2015.
#7 Leroy Pine River
Record/rank: 25-4, No. 10
League finish: First in Wolverine Conference.
Coach: Tim Jones, 17th season (455-80)
Championship history: Class C runner-up 1991.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Dylan Stephens (37-6) soph.; 112 Andrew Park (47-3) soph.; 119 Nate Park (41-4) sr.; 119 Jacob Roberts (40-5) soph.; 130 Tucker Fansler (39-12) jr.; 160 Joe Rigling (42-13) jr.; 171 Raden Holmes (43-9) jr.; 189 Josh Jackson (46-5) sr.; 215 Bryan Mccurry (34-16) fr.
Outlook: Only top seed New Lothrop has more Individual Finals qualifiers among Division 4 teams competing this weekend, and Andrew Park was an individual placer last season. They’ve been part of a team that has won 16 league and District titles over the last 17 seasons and also made the Team Quarterfinals a year ago for the first time since 2008. Pine River beat its three MHSAA Tournament opponents this month by an average of 40 points.
Record/rank: 19-5, unranked
League finish: Does not wrestle in a league.
Coach: Bob Miles, 10th season (169-107)
Championship history: Upper Peninsula runner-up 1968.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 119 Nick Miles (35-9) soph.; 189 Hunter Sadler (50-2) sr.
Outlook: The wrestling program is continuing a strong run by Munising teams in multiple sports, making Finals weekend for the first time in Miles’ decade as coach and after winning a second straight District championship. Sadler finished sixth at 171 last season and brings experience on the big mat. The Mustangs have accomplished this despite voiding four weights and with only two seniors – which could bode well for the future.
PHOTO: A New Lothrop wrestler has his hand raised by an official in victory during a match this season against Richmond at CMU. (Click to see more at 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.)