By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Michigan will celebrate one last time this weekend, at the high school level, an accomplished group of seniors who have dominated the Division 4 Individual Wrestling Finals during the first half of this decade.
Four seniors will take the mat beginning Thursday with a combined seven titles already to their credit. Four more seniors are undefeated and looking to earn a first championship in their final trip.
See below for 10 contenders to watch this weekend, plus others who enter the tournament undefeated or coming off runner-up finishes in 2014. Follow all the matches beginning with Thursday's first round on a subscription basis live on MHSAA.TV, and click here for results at MHSAA.com.
Those listed below are only a handful of the numerous contenders for this weekend’s Division 4 championships. Come back to Second Half at the end of this weekend, when we’ll have post-match thoughts from all 14 title winners.
112: Joe Traynham, Onaway senior (43-3) – The reigning champion at this weight didn’t make his first Finals until last season but should again be in the mix at the end of a bracket that’s arguably gotten tougher.
119: Logan Griffin, Erie-Mason senior (38-0) – This reigning champion also won 112 as a sophomore and was runner-up there as a freshman; he’s going for a second perfect season after finishing undefeated in 2012-13.
130: Dresden Simon, Dansville junior (54-0) – Last season’s runner-up at 119 has moved up two classes and gone over 100 wins for his career after tallying a 49-4 record and wrestling Griffin to a 6-2 decision in the Final last winter.
135: Kyle Barkovich, Lawton senior (51-2) – He finished runner-up at 130 last season, falling by a 5-3 decision in the Final, and is a favorite to add a championship to his other three top-eight placings that also included a sixth at 103 as a freshman and fourth at 112 as a sophomore.
152: Kyle Johnson, Hudson junior (43-7) – His record includes a few more losses than most because Hudson wrestles its share of tough opponents, but Johnson won this weight last year despite entering with 10 defeats.
171: Shane Rodenburg, Kent City senior (53-0) – The four-year standout has gradually moved up the podium at the Finals, from fifth at 160 as a freshman to third at 171 as a sophomore and second at that weight last season; he stands 213-14 for his career.
189: Brody Conner, Lawton senior (54-0) – Like his teammate Barkovich, Connor is hoping to add a title to his fine run after taking third at 171 last season and fifth at 152 pounds as a sophomore.
215: Jacob Cooper, Springport senior (51-0) – Last season’s champion at 189 can finish with a crowning achievement and first perfect season to go also with his title at 160 pounds as a sophomore and runner-up finish at 145 as a freshman.
215: Kevin Koenig, Laingsburg junior (53-1) – He should be Cooper’s main competition, and the other way around as Koenig is the reigning champion at 215 and finished runner-up at that weight as a freshman.
285: Ryan Prescott, Whittemore-Prescott senior (27-0) – The champion at 285 the last two seasons and runner-up in 2012 hasn’t lost since his sophomore year and is 147-4 for his career entering the weekend.
Other 2014 runners-up: Hudson junior Roddy Hamdan (119, 40-7, 112 in 2014), Hesperia senior Trenton Roesly (140, 36-5, 135 in 2014), Manchester senior Brendan Abrigo (112, 47-1, 103 in Division 3 in 2014), Carson City-Crystal senior Alex Young (140, 37-4, 135 in Division 3 in 2014 for Portland).
Also undefeated: Montrose senior Arthur Payne (47-0, 119), New Lothrop junior Cole Hersch (48-0, 135), New Lothrop junior Steven Garza II (38-0, 145), Carson City-Crystal senior Dillen Decker (54-0, 160), Bangor sophomore Devon Kozel (43-0, 215).
More of note: Dansville freshman Anthony Mack (46-2, 103), Erie-Mason sophomore Robert Lefevre (23-2, 112), Dansville junior Clay Ragon (50-4, 125), New Lothrop junior Steven Garza II (38-0, 145), Decatur senior Hunter Bell (52-1, 152), Carson City-Crystal senior Dillen Decker (54-0, 160).
PHOTO: Whittemore-Prescott’s Ryan Prescott celebrates a championship-clinching pin to end last season’s Division 4 match at 285 pounds. (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.)