By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Only three wrestling teams have won at least four straight championships since the first MHSAA Team Finals in 1988. This weekend, St. Johns will seek to become the fourth to pin down that accomplishment.
But this might be the Redwings toughest road to finishing the season with a win. Six of last season's Quarterfinalists also will be back at Battle Creek's Kellogg Arena.
Below is a look at all eight teams competing in Division 2, listed by seed. Their Quarterfinal matches begin at 7:45 p.m. Friday, with Semifinals at 11:45 Saturday morning and the championship match at 4 p.m. All matches this weekend will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv. For results throughout, check the MHSAA Wrestling page. Rankings below are from MichiganGrappler.com.
#1 ST. JOHNS
Record/rank: 19-4, No. 1
League finish: Tied for first in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Coach: Derek Phillips, first season (19-4)
Championship history: Three MHSAA championships (most recently 2012)
Individual Finals qualifiers: 285 Ben Proctor (28-9) sr., 103 Ian Parker (43-1) fr., 125 Zac Hall (42-0) jr., 130 Jacob Schmitt (44-0) sr. 135 Logan Massa (35-2) soph., 140 Mark Bozzo (24-11) jr., 145 Ben Whitford (30-0) sr., 152 Josh Pennell (33-0) sr., 171 Angus Arthur (39-3) soph., 189 Payne Hayden (38-1) sr., 215 Blake Cooper (33-12) sr.
Outlook: New coach, new stars at the top, but that’s about all that’s changed as St. Johns goes after its fourth straight MHSAA championship. Phillps took over the program after seven seasons as an assistant, and five wrestlers who made the Individual Finals last season have taken over for graduated stars Taylor Massa and Jordan Wohlfert. Like those two, five seniors have signed to wrestle in the Big Ten next season: reigning MHSAA individual champs Whitford (University of Michigan), Schmitt (Northwestern) and Brant Schafer (Indiana), reigning runner-up Hayden (Michigan) and top contender Pennell (Michigan State). Hall, a junior, is a two-time individual champion.
Record/rank: 17-6, No. 2
League finish: First in O-K White
Coach: Dave Dean, eighth season (211-37)
Championship history: Three MHSAA championships (most recently 2009), five runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 103 Lucas Hall (34-5) fr., 112 Derek Krajewski (37-13) jr., 112 Zeth Dean (34-5) fr., 119 Bailey Jack (34-6) jr., 135 Jordan Hall (36-2) soph., 160 Max Dean (22-4) fr., 171 Kanon Dean (32-8) jr., 189 Garett Stehley (24-0) jr., 215 Taylor Kornoely (30-0) sr.
Outlook: The Red Arrows are in the Quarterfinals for the third straight season and after finishing runner-up in 2012. Lowell graduated some significant contributors off last year’s team, but six wrestlers are ranked among the top five in their respective classes – with Jack and Kornoely both ranked second.
Record/rank: 33-1, No. 3
League finish: First in Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference
Coach: Todd Hesson, sixth season (record N/A)
Championship history: Has never finished among the top two teams in Finals competition.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Brandon Meek (40-15) soph., 119 Nicholas Zimmerman (44-4) sr., 125 Darek Bullock-Mills (30-11) jr., 145 Casey Burandt (26-1) sr., 152 Fritzel Findeisen (45-4) sr., 189 Ryan Casey (49-1) sr.
Outlook: Niles has set a school record for wins and won its first Regional title since 1960 after also winning back-to-back District titles for the first time. The Vikings own victories this season over three other Division 2 Quarterfinalists: Lowell, Allegan and Mason. All four senior individual qualifiers are ranked among the top eight in their respective weight classes.
#4 WARREN LINCOLN
Record/rank: 30-4, No. 10
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference White
Coach: Bill Delia, 14th season (219-142-3)
Championship history: MHSAA champion 1994.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 285 Michael Abouya (28-8) jr., 119 Garret Kaercher (44-11) fr., 125 Riwan Hormiz (44-10) sr., 130 Robert Pope (32-9) soph., 140 Khannor Kaercher (47-4) soph., 152 Ethan Eisenmann (40-11) soph.
Outlook: Lincoln has made an amazing progression to return to Battle Creek after winning just one match in 2007-08 – and then upping its win total every season over the last five. The Abes have won three straight league titles and two straight District championships. Lincoln should continue to surge, as Hormiz is one of only three seniors expected in the lineup this weekend.
Record/rank: 30-5, No. 4
League finish: First in the Wolverine Conference
Coach: Murray Rose, 25th season (654-141-2)
Championship history: Two MHSAA championships (most recently 2007), two runner-up finishes.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 285 Jon Krcatovich (46-11) sr., 103 Foster Karmon (49-3) fr., 130 Austin Kelley (53-1) sr., 140 Kyle Simaz (56-0) jr., 171 Chance Gorby (43-14) sr.
Outlook: Rose’s incredible coaching career now includes 21 league titles and five straight trips to the Quarterfinals (and nine over the last decade). Among those Allegan beat during this run was No. 8 Hamilton, in the District. Simaz is a two-time individual runner-up and is ranked tops in his weight class for this division, with Kelley second at his weight and Karmon third at his.
Record/rank: 30-12, No. 6
League finish: Tied for first in Southeast Conference White
Coach: Tony Greathouse, second season (60-17)
Championship history: Has never finished among the top two teams in Finals competition.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 285 Joe Rebottaro (44-9) sr., 103 Ricky Azelton (36-14) jr., 145 Anthony Lesko (45-7) sr., 160 Cole Amstutz (38-10) sr., 189 Landon Pelham (44-9) fr., 215 Preston Pelham (45-9) jr.
Outlook: Tecumseh is making its second trip to Battle Creek in its second season under Greathouse, and sets up especially tough at the heavier weights with Individual Finals qualifiers slated for 171-285. Six wrestlers are ranked among the top 10 at their respective weights.
Record/rank: 28-4, No. 7
League finish: First in O-K Bronze
Coach: Paul Johnson, 24th season (538-114-3)
Championship history: MHSAA champion in 2008, one runner-up finish.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 112 Mike Schmidt (47-3) sr., 130 Alec Ward (46-5) jr., 140 Kyle Reamer (36-11) sr., 189 Dakota Sherrick (43-7) sr.
Outlook: Greenville continues to shine despite graduating one of the best wrestlers in MHSAA history, Jordan Thomas, last spring. The Yellow Jackets are in Battle Creek for the fourth straight season and have won eight straight District championships. Schmidt and Ward are ranked among the top three in their respective weight classes.
Record/rank: 30-8, unranked
League finish: First in CAAC Gold
Coach: Brian Martel, 10th season (304-64)
Championship history: Three MHSAA championships (most recently 2006), one runner-up finish.
Individual Finals qualifiers: 140 James Starzec (41-12) sr., 152 Sean Houghton (46-7) sr., 160 Rylen Droscha (43-10) jr., 160 Austin Droscha (43-9) sr., 189 Joey Stid (17-3), sr.
Outlook: Mason was ranked earlier this season and reached the Quarterfinals in part by beating No. 5 Fowlerville at the Regional. This will be the Bulldogs’ third trip to Battle Creek in four seasons and sixth under Martel. Mason relies on seven seniors in the starting lineup including three who are ranked among the top 10 at their respective weights.
PHOTO: St. Johns' Zac Hall (left) wrestles Lowell's Bailey Jack at 112 pounds during last season's Division 2 Final. Both will return to Kellogg Arena on Friday. (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.)