By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
GAYLORD – During the winter of 2001, Davison’s Chase Metcalf was in the process of winning a second consecutive MHSAA individual wrestling title.
Jerry LaJoie, the wrestling coach at Gaylord, was quite familiar with Metcalf and his younger brother, Brent, who would finish 228-0 as a prep and win two NCAA championships.
“I knew the family,” said LaJoie, whose nephew Tony was a two-time MHSAA Finals champion at Clarkston during those days. “The Metcalfs are a staple in Michigan wrestling. I got to watch the Metcalfs grow up in front of me. They were little kids coming on to the wrestling scene when I was a young coach.”
So when the LaJoies welcomed a baby boy on Christmas Day in 2001, they named him Chayse after Chase Metcalf.
“We wanted to make it our own (first name) so we added a ‘y’ to it,” said LaJoie.
Chase Metcalf went on to wrestle at the University of Michigan, then tragically died in an auto accident in 2005 at the age of 21.
As for Chayse LaJoie, he’s making his own mark on the mat. As a freshman last season, LaJoie captured the Division 2 individual title at 103 pounds. That same day, his brother, Dominic, claimed 125 pounds. Only a one-point loss at the 2016 Finals prevented Dominic from becoming a four-time state champ, matching Brent Metcalf’s feat.
It was a proud day for Jerry LaJoie, who has built the Gaylord wrestling program into one of the state’s best, as he watched his sons realize dreams on the same day.
“As a coach, it was awesome,” said LaJoie. “As a dad, it was very special. They were drill partners. All the hard work paid off.”
Athletic director Christian Wilson savored it, too.
“It was a special deal because not only are they outstanding wrestlers, but they’re great kids,” he said. “Anytime you have kids come through your school, and they’re able to see their goals achieved, it’s pretty neat. Not just for our wrestling program and school, but for our community.”
Dominic is now wrestling at Cornell University. Still, the Blue Devils return the nucleus of a team that lost a two-point match to St. Johns in the team Regional Finals a year ago, this after two consecutive MHSAA Semifinal berths. Four Individual Finals placers are back.
“We have high expectations because we have a veteran squad,” said senior captain Joe Markham, who took sixth at 285 last year. “We expect great things out of each other. We want to get back in the running for states.”
Gaylord, ranked No. 3 in Division 2 by Michigan Grappler, opened this campaign with tournament wins at Marquette and Greenville. The Blue Devils placed third at the Goodrich Tournament of Champions over Christmas break with 10 wrestlers.
Gaylord is especially strong in the lower weights with Chayse LaJoie, senior captain Derek Giallombardo and sophomore John Henry Sosa. The three are rotating, depending on style matchups, in the 119, 125 and 130 weight classes. Giallombardo finished fourth at 119 a year ago, while Sosa placed fifth at 112.
“We’re flexible,” said Jerry LaJoie. “We can move our lineup around, and our kids are still capable of performing at high levels.”
The lineup also features Will Sides at 112, Rico Brown at 130-135, Dmitri Smith, Cody Starks and Seth Gregory at 140-145; Jacob McKnight at 145, Kenny Smith at 152, Brady Schulz at 160-171, Cade Foster at 171-189, A.J. Krumholz at 215 and Markham at 285. Foster and Markham won the 171 and 285 weight classes at Goodrich. Giallombardo placed second to Utica Ford’s Terrin Machart at 125, while Chayse LaJoie was third at 119.
“It’s tough to find a couple holes in our lineup that we can’t protect or move around, and that’s what makes us tough,” said LaJoie, who entered the season with a 632-131-2 career record.
Over the holidays, five former Blue Devils returned home to work with the team, including three who are wrestling in college (Dominic LaJoie, Jon Martin at Central Michigan University and Trevor Giallombardo at Ohio University).
“We use the Christmas break to correct some of our mistakes and work on the finer things,” said LaJoie. “Plus, the college kids come in and show their techniques.”
Chayse LaJoie and Derek Giallombardo are training partners this season. Previously, they worked with their brothers.
“Coach likes to say, ’iron sharpens iron,’” Giallombardo said.
Chayse LaJoie appreciates facing good competition in practice. After all, working with his brother in the past helped him develop his work ethic and focus.
“You don’t have to push Chayse to work hard,” his father said. “He‘s a goer. He’ll battle with anybody. Dom was more technical. Chayse is more physical.”
LaJoie said his captains, Giallombardo and Markham, lead by example. Both are capable of winning Finals titles this winter, he said.
When asked what his most memorable moment has been on the mat, Giallombardo said that chapter has yet to be written.
“I’m hoping to make that moment happen at the state meet this year,” he said.
Markham, meanwhile, is motivated by how he finished 2017. He injured his ankle at the Individual Finals and had to default his last match.
“I felt kind of empty afterwards,” he said.” I’m using that to drive me.”
Markham likes the makeup of this team.
“I like our work ethic,” he said. “You’re not born with that skill, you have to work at it – and we have it.”
Still, he added, the Blue Devils must avoid complacency.
“Just because we have state medalists doesn’t mean anything coming into this season,” he said. “We have to keep working, keep building off what we have.
“And we have to stay mentally tough. It’s a long season, and we’re going to have to stay mentally strong if we want to finish the way we expect.”
The Blue Devils will be put to the test Saturday in a highly competitive six-team tournament at Grand Ledge.
“We’ll see some tough teams,” said Giallombardo, who has signed with Ohio University. “We need to do well for seeding.”
Chayse LaJoie can’t wait for the challenge.
“It excites me,” he said. “I love competition.”
After Grand Ledge, Gaylord will begin pursuing another Big North Conference crown. The Blue Devils have won 10 consecutive league titles.
“Both Traverse City teams are getting better, and Petoskey is always tough,” said Jerry LaJoie. “We’ll have to be on our game.”
But the Blue Devils have goals beyond that.
“If we stay healthy, I think we can get back to states,” said Chayse LaJoie. “But that’s if everybody stays healthy and dedicated.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Joe Markham’s arm is raised in victory during a triangular meet Dec. 21 against Ogemaw Heights and Sault Ste. Marie. (Middle) Derek Giallombardo, (top) and Chayse LaJoie are another pair of standouts for this season’s Blue Devils. (Below) Gaylord coach Jerry LaJoie, and graduated son Dominic (kneeling) watch one of their wrestlers compete during the tri-meet. (Photos courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times.)
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.)