Frankfort Follows Coach to Title Success

February 16, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

FRANKFORT – When Frankfort captured its first MHSAA Division 4 District wrestling championship in 22 years last Wednesday, Jaime Smith was asked if another first had been achieved that night.

Was she the first woman in MHSAA history to coach a boys wrestling team to a District title?

"I said, 'I'm going to assume so,'" Smith replied.

It's a milestone that might be hard to verify. If it's not a first, it's certainly rare, according to the MHSAA.

Frankfort's feat under Smith might have come as a surprise to some, but not to those at the school.

High school principal Matt Stapleton called Smith “a quality coach and a quality person," who knows how to get the best out of her students and athletes.

“She’s really passionate about wrestling, about family, about teaching and working with kids,” he said. “Those are the type of (attributes) you need to build a program.”

Frankfort defeated Fife Lake Forest Area and Traverse City St. Francis to claim the District. Freshman Kody Michel's win at 152 pounds decided the outcome in the 42-36 finale with St. Francis.

The championship added to what's been quite a winter for boys athletic teams at the small Class D school. Earlier Wednesday, the Frankfort-Benzie Central co-op squad won the Lake Michigan Ski Conference title. Two days later, the state-ranked basketball team inched closer to the Northwest Conference championship by beating Kingsley to improve its record to 13-1.

Such success is not lost on junior wrestler and two-time Regional qualifier Daymian Tabbert.

"We had to do our part," he said.

Smith, who has an extensive wrestling background, took on the task of resurrecting the program four years ago. Frankfort previously participated in a co-op with Onekama. When that dissolved, the Panthers did not have enough wrestlers to field a team.

In fact, when Smith was hired by the district in 2010, she volunteered to help the school's lone tournament wrestler, Jacob Chappell, who was training at Benzie Central and competing as an individual. The following season Smith was named the coach. She started with six wrestlers that first season, and now has 11, including senior captain Brandon Coxe, who has been in the program all four years. The District crown was the exclamation point of his varsity career.

"It was a very special (night) for the entire team," he said. "We all worked very hard for it. We (Frankfort) haven't done anything like this in a long time. We've come a long way."

Coxe (171), Michel, Tabbert, Ben Tiesworth (112), Isaac Dean (130) and Levi Hubbard (140) were all double winners in the District. Michel, a Regional qualifier at 145, provided the most dramatic moment. Smith moved him up a weight class against St. Francis, knowing it would be the swing match of the night. Given little time to think about it, Michel delivered.

"You need enough time to prepare yourself, but not enough time to scare yourself," Smith said.

Perhaps the day's biggest decision came prior to the matches. Frankfort had a snow day, and conditions were so iffy that the athletic department considered not putting the team bus on the road to St. Francis, a near 40-mile drive.

"Fife Lake was going so we would have automatically forfeited had we not gone," Smith said.

After some discussion, the team was allowed to travel. And, as luck would have it, the storm system, which had produced whiteouts earlier in the day, cleared out.

The District win that night created a buzz at school the following morning. Team members, accustomed to anonymity, suddenly became the center of attention, receiving congratulatory praises from students and staff.

"It was a cool experience," Tabbert, who is 27-12, said.

It was an experience Smith hopes to build off as she develops the varsity – there is no feeder program in the junior high.

"I've already had two kids talk to me about coming out (for the team next season)," she said. "That's (District title) monumental. It will make recruiting easier."

Prior to arriving at Frankfort, Smith coached girls and boys soccer at Traverse City Central. She led the girls to two District titles. Smith was a four-year starter and captain of the soccer team at Olivet College.

But wrestling has always been part of her life.

"I grew up (in Alpena) with five brothers," she said. "We wrestled freestyle on Saturday, folkstyle on Sunday. That's what we did since we were old enough to get across the mat."

She eventually wrestled for the high school team until she made the decision to focus on soccer.

In college, she got back into wrestling, competing in open freestyle tournaments. She also started officiating youth tournaments.

It was at Olivet where she met her husband Ethan Smith, who was a four-time MHSAA Finals wrestling qualifier at Traverse City Central.

“People ask me, 'What's your favorite sport?'" Jaime Smith said. "I love soccer, but I was successful at it because of the discipline and characteristics I learned from wrestling."

It was a no-brainer, she said, when Stapleton approached her about the wrestling job, even though it's been almost exclusively a male-dominated position.

"It felt pretty natural," she said. "Wrestling is in my blood, and there's no way I was going to let (the program) die.

"Were there concerns about me being a female? Absolutely. But my boys, my gentlemen, make that really easy. There's a respect, trust and understanding between us. I have never had an issue with one of my athletes. People always ask, 'How do you make that happen?' It's on them. They allow it to be comfortable and appropriate."

She's had a harder time convincing others, though. At coaches meetings, and even at matches, she’s been mistaken as a mother of a wrestler, and not the coach. Another time, after a match, the opposing wrestler came over to shake the Frankfort coach's hand and walked right past Smith.

"He was looking for a male coach," Smith said.

"But it doesn't bother me," she added. "All that matters (on the team) is the respect that we have between each other."

Smith believes there will be more women following her path. For proof, she points to the increased participation of girls in the sport.

"When I was wrestling (in youth and high school tournaments), I was one of the few and far between," she said. "Now, especially in the lower weights, you can show up at a tournament and create a girls bracket if it's a round-robin. I hope, if they're qualified, you'll see more of it in the future."

As for the immediate future, Frankfort will be the decided underdog when it competes in Wednesday's Team Regional at Leroy Pine River. The Panthers open with Charlevoix. Although numbers are improving, Frankfort still voids three weight classes.

The Panthers will have two wrestlers, Tabbert and Michel, in the Individual Regional on Saturday at Rogers City. Both are underclassmen, which bodes well for the Panthers next season.

"If you look at it, numbers (in wrestling) seem to be waning in northern Michigan," Stapleton said. "But certainly, we're gaining momentum."

For Smith, that’s encouraging.

"It's exciting to be talking about the wrestling program again," she said.

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) Frankfort's Daymian Tabbert wrestles under the watchful eye of coach Jaime Smith, top right-hand corner. (Middle) Smith confers with Ben Tiesworth during a match. (Below) Frankfort poses with its first District title trophy in 22 years. (Photos courtesy of the Frankfort wrestling program.)

After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

July 25, 2023

ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.“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.

Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season.“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.)