Muskegon Catholic Central is the smallest wrestling school in Muskegon County, with just 124 students in the high school.
It also happens to be the only school in the county with two individual Regional champions in senior David Hill (157 pounds) and junior Easten Cook (165 pounds), who hope to add all-state honors to their resume when they compete at the MHSAA Individual Finals on Friday and Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.
Now, don’t expect wrestling to usurp football as the sport of choice at MCC – which with 12 state titles during the playoff era is behind only now-closed Farmington Hills Harrison’s 13 championships – but throw in another Finals qualifier in senior Zach Michael (175) and the Crusaders grapplers boast three headed to Ford Field, not bad for a school which had only four wrestlers in the entire program in 2019.
“It’s been a great year for our program and our school, and we’re having a blast,” said fifth-year MCC coach Barry Kieft, who is assisted by PJ Mitchell.
“Those three state qualifiers are all stud football players. That sends a great message to the younger kids that wrestling will make you better on the football field.”
Hill was a star running back for the Crusaders’ Division 6 District finalist football team this fall, who had to get over a stigma to become a star on the mat.
“I used to be a germaphobe, so it’s hard to believe I even started wrestling,” said Hill, who is 32-7 this season and has 107 career wins. “But at some point, something changed. I love the independent part of it. You have to go out there and do it; you can’t blame anything on other people.”
Hill, the son of former Muskegon Reeths-Puffer all-state running back DeMarkeo Hill, who led the Rockets to the Class A championship in 1992 and tragically died of brain cancer five years ago at the age of 44, calls his dad his athletic hero and his inspiration before every match.
David Hill made short work of the field at 157 pounds at the Feb. 11 Division 4 Regional at Ithaca, including a pin at the 1:00 mark in the championship match.
This will be his second appearance at the Individual Finals, after placing fourth at Regionals last year. He believes his experience, speed and unorthodox style give him a shot at the title.
“I have a unique style, that’s for sure,” said Hill, a three-sport athlete who also runs track in the spring. “My coaches don’t know what to say to me because a lot of what I do isn’t conventional wrestling moves. So they just say, ‘Go out there and wrestle like David Hill.’”
Cook, meanwhile, is a conventional tactician at 165, the next weight class up from Hill.
Cook, a starting guard and linebacker on the football field, embraces the mental and physical challenges of wrestling.
“I think my biggest strength is my mental preparation and thinking things through,” said Cook, who got started in the sport in fifth grade when he was hanging around his older brother and now-MCC assistant coach, Aiden Cook. “I like the hardships that come with wrestling and seeing if you are strong enough to overcome it.”
Easten Cook, who as his name suggests, loves to experiment with different foods (right now, he and Hill eat a small granola bar dipped in honey before each match), won his Regional championship match 9-4.
Cook sports his team’s best record at 37-7, with city, District and Regional titles. He has 82 career wins.
The third member of the Crusaders’ Finals trio is Michael, who has a 32-9 season record and 89 career wins.
In addition to the three qualifiers, MCC also had two wrestlers eclipse the 20-win plateau this season in juniors Andrew Rosema (138) and Sawyer Hanson (190).
That additional depth nearly pushed the Crusaders to a team District championship Feb. 8. MCC downed Holton, 52-18, in the District Semifinal, before a narrow loss to Ravenna, 42-36, in the championship match.
Kieft said his team’s three Finals qualifiers are all ultra-competitive and have pushed each other to greater heights.
“They just pound each other in practice, sometimes too much,” Kieft said with a laugh, thinking of some of the trio’s practice battles in the wrestling room above MCC’s James Morse Jr. auxiliary gymnasium. “We had to go to 30-second rounds when they practice because if they go 1 minute, it gets too intense.”
Kieft said another reason for his team’s postseason success is a regular season of competing against larger schools.
Kieft, 71, has also been an assistant football and baseball coach at MCC in recent years. He recently decided to retire from coaching those two sports, but plans to continue leading the wrestling program.
“People ask me all the time: “Don’t you want to be in Florida during the winter?’,” said Kieft, who was an assistant wrestling coach at Fruitport in the 1990s. “No, I love doing this. I’ve been down there in the sun and all that, but I miss this. I enjoy being with the wrestling kids.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Easten Cook’s arm is raised in victory after a match this season. (Middle) Muskegon Catholic Central wrestling coach Barry Kieft. (Below) David Hill works to establish control during a match against Whitehall. (Photos courtesy of Karen Kieft.)
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.)