By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Whitehall wrestling already had a solid infrastructure in place.
The Vikings have been the dominant wrestling program in the Muskegon area since George W. Bush was President, recently winning their 13th consecutive Greater Muskegon Athletic Association city wrestling championship.
On the state level, Whitehall also has been a fixture at the Division 3 Team Finals in recent years – losing to powerhouse Dundee in the Semifinals both last year and 2016, and bowing to Lake Fenton in the 2017 Quarterfinals.
Could this be the year Whitehall breaks through with an MHSAA championship?
The Vikings hope that the hiring of young, first-year co-coaches and brothers Justin Zeerip and Collin Zeerip – legends from nearby Hesperia who went on to wrestle at the University of Michigan – is exactly what the program needs to take that final step.
“Honestly, it’s been an amazing experience being coached by them,” said Whitehall senior Allen Powers (189 pounds), who has a 32-3 record on the season. “It gives us a bunch of extra confidence knowing that they were just Division I college wrestlers – and they’re not afraid to get on the mat and show it to us.”
Whitehall, which has a 24-2 dual record and is ranked No. 3 in Division 3, starts its drive to the Team Finals on Thursday at the District tournament at Shelby. If the Vikings prevail Thursday, they would host Team Regionals on Feb. 13. A win there would put them back in the Finals at Wings Event Center on Feb. 22-23, with a chance to prove they have closed the gap on Dundee and Richmond – which between them have won the past nine Division 3 titles.
Last year’s loss to Dundee was particularly one-sided, 67-3, a pummeling which has motivated Whitehall to improve throughout the offseason and so far this winter. The Vikings’ only losses have come to Rockford and Hartland, both Division 1 schools.
“It’s been awesome watching these kids grow – both in technique and in their confidence,” said Justin Zeerip, the oldest of the three Zeerip brothers (Justin, Brandon and Collin), all of whom wrestled at Michigan. “My brother and I just want to bring that college wrestling atmosphere into the room. We’ve set high goals; we want to be wrestling on that final day. “
Suffice to say: when the Zeerips talk, the Vikings listen.
After all, Justin Zeerip, 30, brings instant credibility as a four-time Division 4 individual champion at Hesperia who graduated with a 260-0 record and 203 pins. He went on to win 100 matches during a five-year career at Michigan and now teaches middle school math at Hesperia.
Collin Zeerip, meanwhile, is 26 and was a three-time individual champion at Hesperia, graduating with 238 victories. He won 38 matches at Michigan before returning home to help run the family business, Heritage Farm Markets in Fremont.
While all three of his boys wrestled at Michigan, Justin and Collin’s father, Craig Zeerip, was a four-year wrestler at Ohio State. Craig Zeerip is now the head wrestling coach at Fremont.
“Our family has always loved the month of February,” said Justin Zeerip, who as a senior at Hesperia in 2007 became at that time the fourth wrestler in state history to finish a four-year career unbeaten and the 13th to win four Finals titles. “There’s a whole different feel. I’m really enjoying it as a coach as well.”
Whitehall’s strong wrestling foundation began in the 1980s under Rick Champion and Craig Christensen, who are still coaching in the program. Cliff Sandee coached the Vikings for the past 11 years – a tenure which was highlighted by 11 city titles, nine Districts, five Regionals and four Final Four appearances – before leaving to take an assistant principal position at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer last August.
That departure opened the door for the Zeerips, who inherited a young, but well-rounded team with just three seniors – Sam Baustert (112), Trenton Blanchard (160) and Powers – in the normal 14-wrestler lineup.
The strength is in the upper weights, starting with freshman Ira Jenkins (152) with a sparkling first-year record of 27-6. Trenton Blanchard is 29-4, junior Kayleb Vennema (171) is 34-2 and junior Jarrean Sargeant (285) is 28-8.
The impressive records continue when the match swings to the lowest weights, with freshman Aiden Weiler (103) at 29-6 and Baustert at 29-4.
“I know they are going to be really good the next few years with all of our young guys, but I really don’t see any reason we can’t win state this year,” said Baustert, an all-state track and cross country performer who will run at Grand Valley State. “The new coaches have given us all a whole new sense of hope. We all have learned a few moves that we haven’t done before.”
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) Whitehall senior Sam Baustert works toward a pin. (Middle) Trenton Blanchard is another Vikings senior standout this winter. (Below) Whitehall co-head coaches Collin Zeerip, left, and Justin Zeerip, right, flank Baustert after an invitational victory earlier this season. (Photos courtesy of the Whitehall wrestling program.)
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.)