By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
GAYLORD — The town of Gaylord is surrounded on all sides by more than an hour of northern Michigan roads and landscape.
But when it comes to high school wrestling, Gaylord is like an island.
Few wrestling programs in the northern Lower Peninsula are on par with the Blue Devils, who have made team success an annual occurrence and churned out elite individual performers year after year.
“Everyone who wrestles us, they know they’re going to get a battle,” said Gaylord head coach Jerry Lajoie, who is entering his 24th season leading the Blue Devils. “We’ve been to the state tournament several times — three or four times in the semis, a couple more times in the quarters and one time in the finals. Last year we put out two state champs and three other medalists. Not bad out of 14 weight classes for us.”
As good of a run as Gaylord has had in wrestling — the Blue Devils are working on a string of consecutive Big North Conference and District championships that goes back more than a decade and have won Regional titles in three of the last four years — last year was the program’s best. As a team, the Blue Devils advanced to the Division 2 championship match for the first time and had Chayse Lajoie and Derek Giallombardo reach the pinnacle of the Individual Finals at Ford Field, winning championships at 112 and 125 pounds, respectively. Gaylord had five others qualify for the Individual Finals, with Joe Markham third at the 285-pound class, Jacob McKnight fourth at 140 and Cade Foster sixth at 171.
“It was a great environment to be in,” said John Sosa, who was among Gaylord’s seven individual state qualifiers in 2018 and a Finals placer as a freshman in 2017. “Everybody wanted to be there. Everyone put in 110 percent, and it showed at the end of the year when we were in the state finals match. Everyone was willing to work. I could pick anyone in the room and everyone would give 110 percent, which I very much appreciate.”
The Blue Devils are motivated by last season’s 43-17 loss to five-time reigning Division 2 champion Lowell in the Final and are hoping to replicate their trip this winter, with perhaps a different result in the last match.
“We’ve got a team that I think we can get back to team states with,” said Jerry Lajoie. “We’re going to be focusing on winning conference, then Districts and Regionals. Once you get (to the Finals), you never know what can happen.”
The challenge will be replacing seniors like Giallombardo, Markham and 160-pound individual qualifier Nick Brewster. This year, more than half of the 33 grapplers on the roster are freshmen. That prevalence of youth doesn’t faze a veteran coach like LaJoie.
“We just had this discussion when we had a meeting on Wednesday — we’re starting a lot of young kids,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a freshman or not. Expectations are the same. We’ve had freshman state champions. Why not you?’”
The Blue Devils are fortunate to be able to lean on veteran leadership while they get their younger group ready to compete at a high level. Foster is back as a senior to handle the 171 or 189-pound division, and the junior class led by Chayse Lajoie, who can wrestle anywhere from 119 to 130, Sosa (125 or 130) and McKnight (152 or 160) is strong and figures to rack up a lot of wins over the next few months.
“I’m just hoping our team can push through and make it to states again, and hopefully contest for the state championship again,” said Chayse Lajoie, the most accomplished member of the squad as a two-time MHSAA individual champion as well as a Junior Greco-Roman national champ at 120 pounds. “We’re just trying to get everyone together right now. Towards the end of the season we’ll start focusing on that. We kind of take things step by step.”
Hard work is the most common response the Blue Devils give when asked what it takes to become an exceptional wrestler, and that helps explain Gaylord’s success – there’s no shortage of work ethic in Gaylord’s wrestling room. Lajoie demands that and dedication, though he also makes sure wrestling is fun for his team, too. With all of those factors in the equation, he doesn’t have much trouble getting his squad to meet the expectations of the program.
“Kids are probably the best judge of character out of anybody. More so than adults,” said Lajoie. “They figure out if you care about them or not. And if you do, they’ll buy in.”
It doesn’t take Gaylord’s wrestlers long to realize their coach is willing to put in just as much time as they do, creating a mutual respect that strengthens the bond between coach and athletes.
“He’s a great guy,” Sosa said of Lajoie. “Very appreciative that we can give him our time. He says, ‘If you give me your time, I’ll give you mine.’ Very knowledgeable on and off the mat. You can call on him any time of the day, and he’ll help you out.”
The end result is what has become a wrestling dynasty in northern Michigan, built from the youth level up with a group of kids who take pride in being from Gaylord and everything for which the wrestling program stands.
“We only have so many kids to choose from, and no one in our area,” said Jerry Lajoie. “You can’t move five minutes and go to a different school. That’s where our badge of honor is. We’re up here, we’re all local boys — let’s go battle.”
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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) Gaylord’s Cade Foster works toward a pin during last season’s Division 2 Semifinal win over Warren Woods Tower at Wings Stadium. (Middle) The Blue Devils, including coach Jerry Lajoie (left), cheer on a teammate. (Click to see 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.)