By Nick Hankins
Special to Second Half
AUBURN HILLS – A set of brothers sent The Palace crowd into a frenzy Saturday night at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals.
Detroit Catholic Central’s Myles and Malik Amine did so, as Myles, a junior, upset two-time Davison champion Justin Oliver 6-5 in overtime in their 140-pound title match. Malik Amine followed with a 34-second pin of previously-undefeated Alec Pantaleo of Canton.
“(DCC coach Mitch Hancock) prepares us to wrestle just like we are drilling,” Myles Amine said. “Oliver is a tough wrestler. He took me down right off the bat, and I found a way to battle back. Oliver has beat me four times before tonight; this is the first time I have beaten him. He is a great competitor. We are great friends and wrestled together all summer.
“Conditioning was a big part of this match. I had to keep my composure throughout the match, and my conditioning paid off in the end.”
Conditioning was not a factor in his brother's victory.
“Unreal just to go out there and compete against Alec,” Malik Amine said. “He is one of the most explosive wrestlers in the country. It is awesome that both my brother and I won back-to-back state titles.
“My mindset was to put him away. We have prepared for him all week. My dad always said when you get an opponent on his back, do not let him up. I went out and I expected to win. This is great momentum going into my career next year at Michigan.”
The win also avenged Malik Amine’s loss to Pantaleo in the Finals two years ago.
Champion: Ben Freeman, Walled Lake Central, Fr. (43-1)
Technical Fall, 20-5 in 4:31 over Carl Antrassian, Monroe, Soph. (48-5)
To win four MHSAA titles in your high school career, you have to win your first.
And sometimes that first one is not the easiest.
That's what Freeman said after winning his first as a ninth grader.
“I feel amazing,” Freeman said. “I am enjoying this moment. My coaches gave me confidence to wrestle tough this weekend. My goal is to win four state championships, and I got the toughest one out of the way. This tournament is more mental than physical, so I had to keep focused for three days to get it done.”
Champion: Max Johnson, Davison, Soph. (42-7)
Fall, 1:53, over Alex Hrisopoulos, Oxford, Soph. (48-9)
Johnson had enough time on the mat during this MHSAA tournament. So he decided to shorten the time in the Final.
Johnson got his only pin at The Palace in the championship match, but showed dominance throughout the tournament. He also beat returning champion Benny Gomez from Holt 12-6 in the Semifinal.
“My game plan was to go out and wrestle six tough minutes and whatever happens, happens,” Johnson said. “I saw an opening and took advantage of it to get the fall.”
Champion: Trevor Zdebski, Detroit Catholic Central, Jr. (27-2)
Decision, 3-0 over Martin Rodriguez, Holt, Sr. (45-2)
Zdebski had a tough road to The Palace this year. He started his season with a broken hand, an injury that required time off. His first week of competition was the Detroit Catholic Central Super Duals, and he started the season 0-2.
His performance from that point on was flawless.
“I knew I had to get on my offense going right away and push the pace,” Zdebski said. “Nobody works as hard as we do at CC, so I knew if I got up early I could wear him down and control the match.”
Champion: Lincoln Olson, Davison, Jr. (45-1)
Technical Fall, 22-7 in 5:39 over Kyle Noonan, Rochester Hills Stoney Creek, Sr. (48-3)
Olson may have had the most dominating performance of all at the Division 1 Finals. He did the unthinkable, winning by technical fall in each of his four matches.
When his hand was raised, he held up three fingers toward the Davison crowd. He had just dominated his way to his third title.
“I am not training for state championships,” Olson said. “I am training for NCAA championships. My goal for the weekend was to dominate and to tech fall my way through the tournament. I knew if I opened up my offense that I would be unstoppable.”
Champion: Ben Griffin, Canton, Sr. (50-3)
Decision, 5-1 over Ben Calandrino, Howell, Sr. (52-2)
Ben Griffin came to the Finals this year with one goal in mind – to win a title.
He came up short two years ago, falling in the Final to Mitch Rogaliner from Temperance Bedford 9-5.
But this was Griffin's year. He beat Calandrino 5-1, his second win this season over the Howell opponent. With 20 seconds left and trailing by one, Griffin hit a Peterson roll for the reversal and back points as time expired.
“I kept my composure with time running down and went back to what I do best on bottom,” Griffin said. “I am very happy to win a state championship. It’s a lot better crying tears of joy than tears of sadness. Ben and I are great friends and will be teammates next year at Eastern Michigan.”
Champion: Austin Eicher, Hartland, Sr., (39-1)
Decision, 4-2 over Collin Tomkins, Grandville, Sr. (36-5)
Eicher finally got to celebrate his championship on the mat.
He won an MHSAA title last year by beating his teammate Jacob Gorial 5-0, and he ended the match embraced in a hug with his teammate instead.
This year was different.
When his hand was raised he held up two fingers to the Hartland cheering section after completing his wrestling career with 205 wins and two championships. He is the first four-time MHSAA Finals placer in the storied Hartland program.
“I had a bad injury last week at team state finals tearing cartilage and muscle between my rib,” Eicher said. “This was the most important match of my life, and I was not going to let pain get in the way of a victory. I think God was testing my will to win this year.”
Champion: Nick Bennett, Detroit Catholic Central, Sr. (43-0)
Major Decision, 9-1 over Dominic Latora, Portage Central, Sr. (46-2)
Bennett was not a well known name in Michigan before the 2013-2014 season.
He was a two time state champion in Texas before moving back to Michigan to compete during his senior year. He won an MHSAA championship in dominating fashion with two falls and two major decisions.
“It has been a very gratifying year winning a team state championship and finishing with an individual state championship,” Bennett said. “I have the best training partners in the state with the Amine brothers. I wrestled very controlled and conservative this weekend and opened up when I had the opportunity to score. My game plan was to control ties and score on my feet and push my opponents. Coach (Mitch) Hancock did an excellent job getting us prepared this year.”
Champion: Jordan Atienza, Livonia Franklin, Sr. (64-1)
Decision, 10-5 over Dakota Juarez, Grand Haven, Sr. (41-1)
Jordan Atienza cruised through the tournament this year with a pin in his first round and a technical fall in the Quarterfinal match.
He then beat Jake Johnson of Macomb Dakota with a major decision, 13-5, in his Semifinal.
Atienza lost to Nick Vandermeer of Clarkston last year in the 152-pound Final and used the loss as a motivating factor to get the job done this year.
“I finally got the monkey off my back,” Atienza said. “I have been thinking about that Finals match for a year and I got it done. I am a state champ. I put in a lot of hours in the offseason so I would not have to go through what I went through last year. My gameplan was to dominate on my feet and score points.”
Champion: Drew Garcia, Detroit Catholic Central, Sr. (41-1)
Decision, 5-2 over Devan Richter, Harrison Twp. L’Anse Creuse, Sr. (53-2)
Garcia finished his career in fine fashion, winning his third individual championship Saturday and third team championship last weekend.
He beat Richter for the second time in two weeks.
Garcia had arguably the toughest weight class at The Palace in Division 1 this year. He defeated two-time champion Jordan Cooks of Davison in the Semifinal, 2-1 in overtime. Garcia finished off Catholic Central’s run in the Finals to become the team’s fifth individual champion this year.
“It is a great feeling to be in such an elite class of three-time state champs,” Garcia said. “I knew coming into the weekend this was going to be a very tough tournament with all of the tough competition at 171. We wrestled great this weekend, finishing with (eight) individual placers.”
Champion: Shwan Shadaia, Rochester, Sr. (44-3)
Fall, 5:56 over Derek Hillman, Brownstown-Woodhaven, Sr. (48-3)
Shadaia finished his career with another championship, leaving his legacy at Rochester High.
He avenged a loss earlier in the year to Hillman. It was Shadaia’s second straight title.
“He is a tough wrestler, and I am just happy I won,” Shadaia said. “He beat me pretty good this year. I just wanted to be a two-time state champ, and leave a legacy on my school. I stayed in good position and stuck to my gameplan to get the win.”
Champion: Jordon Brandon, Westland John Glenn, Sr. (54-2)
Decision, 3-1 over Matt Okaiye, Waterford Kettering, Sr. (40-2)
Brandon worked hard all year to grab what he thought he should have last year.
An MHSAA championship.
“I am very happy that I won a state championship this year,” Brandon said. “I would like to thank my grandmother. She has been with me throughout.
“Matt is a tough kid and I knew I had to stop his double to win this year. I should have had a state championship last year but I came up short. I worked hard all summer … to prepare for this.”
Champion: Parker Tillman, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Sr. (46-0)
Decision, 3-2 UTB over Brian Darios, East Lansing, Jr. (40-2)
Parker Tillman took nothing for granted at this year's Finals – even though he was a runner-up last year.
Tillman won the title this time with 3-2 ultimate tiebreaker overtime win over Darios. It was the same result Tillman had over Darios at Regionals, when he pinned him in the third overtime.
“I feel great to have won a state championship,” Tillman said. “I was very nervous about every match down here. I came close last year but fell short in the Finals. I was hurt at Regionals and had to wrestle tough. I promised my coach I would win a state championship for him.
PHOTO: Detroit Catholic Central's Malik Amine has his hand raised in victory during the Division 1 Individual Finals. (Click to see more fromHigh School Sports Scene.)
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.)