By Nick Hankins
Special for Second Half
AUBURN HILLS – Ben Freeman stamped his name in Michigan high school wrestling history Saturday with an impressive and technical display of skills that fans across the state have become accustomed to from the talented Walled Lake Central senior.
Freeman became just the 22nd wrestler in state history to win four MHSAA individual championships when he beat Colin Takata of Birmingham Groves by technical fall, 24-7, in the second period of the 140-pound championship match at the Individual Finals on Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Freeman ended his senior season with a 34-0 record and a career mark of 163-1.
“I feel great, and I don’t think it has sunk in yet,” Freeman said. “This is crazy. There is really nothing like it. I wrestle all across the country and this (The Palace) is my favorite arena to wrestle in.”
This was a special year for the Freeman family.
Not only did he win his fourth title, but he got to watch his younger brother Nick win an MHSAA title at 135 pounds. And all in front of their father, Al Freeman, who is their coach.
But this night belonged to Ben Freeman.
“This is so much relief winning my fourth state title,” Freeman said. “I never thought I could do it. I pictured it a lot, but never thought I could do it.”
Champion: T.J. Daugherty, Walled Lake Central, Fr. (42-5)
Decision, 4-3, over Nick Alayan, Macomb Dakota, Soph. (51-6)
It was sweet revenge for Daugherty, who beat old nemesis Nick Alayan of Macomb Dakota to win the 103-pound championship.
Daugherty beat Alayan 4-3 this time after falling to him two weeks ago.
“My game plan coming in was to wrestle on my feet,” Daugherty said. “He beat me at Regionals 6-0 with a cradle so I had to wrestle on my feet. It feels really good to be a state champion.”
Champion: Benyamin Kamali, Detroit Catholic Central, Jr. (41-3)
Fall 3:31, over Bryce Brust, Battle Creek Lakeview, Soph. (44-7)
Kamali left little doubt he would be walking off The Palace floor with another championship.
He earned his second straight by pinning Brust in 3 minutes, 31 seconds.
“I came into the tournament with the mindset of dominating, and I dominated this match; it feels good,” Kamali said.
And like he did in his match, so did the Shamrocks, as for the second year Kamali was one of five individual champions for Detroit Catholic Central.
“Catholic Central’s program is based around domination: go out there and break your opponent,” Kamali said. “We are a family, I would do anything for anyone on our team. It feels great to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself.”
Champion: Rayvon Foley, Ann Arbor Pioneer, Sr. (54-3)
Decision, 8-3, over Mikey Mars, Westland John Glenn, Jr. (56-4)
Sometimes underdogs get their due at The Palace, and that is exactly what Ann Arbor Pioneer senior Foley accomplished at 119 pounds.
He beat two-time reigning champion Mikey Mars of Westland John Glenn, 8-3, in their 119-pound final.
“I feel good; I just beat a two-time state champion,” Foley said. “I have lost to that kid so many times in my life, it felt good to beat him. He is a tough kid. My game plan coming into this match was to wrestle on my feet and score points. I had to win this match on my feet, and I did that.”
Champion: A.J. Facundo, Davison, Jr. (39-5)
Decision, SV-1 2-1, over Donte Rivera-Garcia, Southgate Anderson, Sr. (49-2)
Facundo learned how it felt to win a Finals match two years ago when he won the Division 1 112-pound title.
Last year he took second at 119.
On Saturday, he capped off another impressive season with another championship, beating Southgate Anderson’s Rivera-Garcia 2-1 in sudden victory.
“I have worked my tail off all year,” Facundo said. “I have been doing two practices a day to prepare for this moment. I came in with the mindset of I am a fierce competitor. My focus coming in was to attack, attack, attack. I pushed the pace to win this match. (Davison coach Roy Hall) does a great job preparing us to be champions.”
Champion: Kevon Davenport, Detroit Catholic Central, Soph. (43-3)
Decision, 4-3, over Xavier Graham, Brownstown Woodhaven, Sr. (55-2)
Davenport has a reputation of being solid on his feet, and that came in handy when winning his second straight championship with a 4-3 win over Brownstown Woodhaven’s Graham.
The win avenged Davenport’s loss to Graham two weeks ago at Regionals.
“I would like to thank God, my father and my coaches for preparing me for this tournament,” Davenport said. “I felt if I attacked on my feet and got to my low level single legs that I could win this match.”
Champion: Nick Freeman, Walled Lake Central, Jr. (35-1)
Decision, 5-2, over Anthony Gibson, Westland John Glenn, Jr. (53-5)
“All the hard work and hours I have put it, they are starting to pay off,” Freeman said.
Wrestling in older brother Ben Freeman’s footsteps may be daunting, but Nick Freeman wants to make a name for himself and got a great start Saturday night.
“That’s what I’m working towards,” Nick Freeman said. “Every time I have come here I have fallen short. But I kept working on the little things, and now they have paid off.”
Champion: Cameron Amine, Detroit Catholic Central Soph. (45-3)
Decision, 9-3, over Danny Pfeffer, Fraser, Sr. (57-1)
There are a lot of motivated wrestlers in the practice room at Detroit Catholic Central. None may be more motivated than Amine, who won his second title with an impressive 9-3 win over previously-undefeated Pfeffer.
With the starting weight set at 145 pounds, Amine was the first of the five individual champions for the Shamrocks on Saturday.
“It feels great to get that second state championship in,” Amine said. “People say you always have a target on your back once you won one, but I use that as motivation to keep going and keep pushing myself everyday in the practice room to be the best. This caps off a great season and offseason. I was a double All-American this summer; this shows all my hard work has paid off.”
Champion: Nathan Atienza, Livonia Franklin, Sr. (58-1)
Decision, 4-3, over Kameron Bush, Grandville, Sr. (39-2)
In a battle of returning champions, Franklin’s Atienza beat Grandville’s Bush in an exciting match that drew a lot of the eyes at The Palace to their mat.
“This is my second state title; it is very exciting,” Atienza said. “I was anxious coming into this match as he was a state champ last year. I pushed myself hard all year; I was motivated.
“Kam is a tough opponent. I knew deep down inside my head I had it. I have worked for this my entire life, and nobody was going to take this away from me.”
Champion: Kolin Leyrer, Holt, Sr. (41-2)
Decision, 6-4, over William Marano, Dearborn Edsel Ford, Jr. (50-4)
Leyrer ran off the mat and jumped into Holt coach Rocky Shaft’s arms.
It was a great time to experience a huge accomplishment with your uncle.
“This is the most amazing thing I have ever felt in my life,” Leyrer said. “With Rocky being my uncle, this championship just means that much more. He knows how much I wanted this for me and him.”
Champion: Tyler Morland, Detroit Catholic Central, Sr. (37-0)
Technical Fall, 17-2 (4:40), over Matthew Heaps, Portage Northern, Sr. (51-1)
Morland left little doubt he would leave his high school wrestling career in impressive fashion.
He ended his senior season with a perfect 37-0 record and second straight championship at this weight.
“I came into the tournament wanting to dominate,” Morland said. “I could have wrestled better in my Quarterfinals match, but this was just the way I wanted to end my career by dominating in the Finals.”
“It is a lot of fun competing at this tournament. This is the biggest stage; it doesn’t get any better than this. There is nothing better than to compete in front of your friends and family.”
Champion: Brenden McRill, Davison, Sr. (41-2)
Decision, SV-1 3-1, over Ryan Vasbinder, Grandville, Sr. (21-3)
It may not have been as impressive as his win at the Team Finals a week ago, but McRill’s 3-1 sudden victory win over Vasbinder may have been a little sweeter.
Last week, McRill beat Vasbinder 14-6 with seven takedowns.
“This feels great to come away with a second state championship,” McRill said. “Ryan is a tough kid, and I knew he was going to have a game plan after last week. My mindset was the same as last weekend – to come out and score a lot of points. I wanted to score more than I did today, but I am going to keep working to be the best. I am very happy with the way I performed this weekend.”
Champion: Ben Cushman, Flushing, Jr. (56-0)
Decision, 11-6, over Drake Morley, Grand Haven, Sr. (29-5)
Cushman became his school's first individual champion since 2000, beating Morley to finish his junior season with a 56-0 record.
“I came out with the game plan to wrestle on my feet and I did that; I took him down five times,” Cushman said. “I just feel so great for Flushing and our county."
Champion: Nicholas Jenkins, Detroit Catholic Central, Sr. (46-1)
Decision, 3-2, over Austin Emerson, Temperance Bedford, Jr. (49-2)
Jenkins makes very few mistakes.
The Detroit Catholic Central senior heavyweight makes his matches a strategic battle every time, and he usually comes out on top, just like he did Saturday night when he won his second straight title.
“This feels great to be able to come in here and have the confidence and work on my offense and work on my shots and hit a peak out in the Finals,” Jenkins said. “It feels great to be able to be at that level. “
It’s been a good two weeks for Jenkins. His team also won a title last week at Central Michigan University.
“The team state championship was great, probably the best because you get to enjoy it with all of your friends and family and the rest of the community,” Jenkins said. “But there are not a lot of things that top winning two individual state championships.”
PHOTO: Walled Lake Central’s Ben Freeman wrestles Colin Takata of Birmingham Groves on the way to a fourth MHSAA individual title Saturday. (Click for more from 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.)