By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
AUBURN HILLS – Trent Hillger was as impressive as ever during his run to his third straight MHSAA individual title.
The Lake Fenton senior heavyweight pinned his first three opponents at the Division 3 Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills this past weekend, then beat Lake Odessa Lakewood's Luke Tromp by technical fall in the Final, 15-0, to end his season with a 59-0 record.
"I was feeling good," Hillger said. "I felt prepared coming into the tournament. My coaches prepared me well, I came in and wrestled like I have all season. You see upsets left and right, you always have to go into the match like he can beat you, like he is the number one guy in the state. You always have to wrestle aggressive, wrestle your style of match and that’s what I did and came out on top."
There would be no upset here, as now Hillger gets prepared to take his talents to the Big Ten and the University of Wisconsin.
Champion: Sean Spidle, Flint Powers, Fr. (39-3)
Decision, 7-3, over Hunter Assenmacher, Ida, Fr. (43-7)
Competing in a Final can make a wrestler an emotional wreck, especially a freshman taking his sport's biggest stage in high school.
But Flint Powers ninth grader Spidle took his coach's advice and turned that into a 7-3 win over Ida's Assenmacher.
"Everything I've worked for has paid off," Spidle said. "My coaches told me to stay aggressive, stay calm and stick to the game plain and I'd win, and I did that."
Champion: Mitchel Christensen, Essexville Garber, Jr. (49-2)
Decision, 8-3, over Anthony Gallagher (Perry), Sr. (48-3)
Winning a championship in wrestling is an incredible accomplishment.
Beating a returning champion to do so takes that accomplishment to another level.
That's what Garber's Christensen did, as Gallagher won a title in 2016.
"I had dreams about winning it, but I didn’t really think I could," Christensen said. "I knew I put in all the work during the offseason. I knew I just had to trust my stuff and wrestle my match. I felt good during the match. There was one thing I was thinking the whole time: six perfect minutes of wrestling. It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it will once I walk up those podium steps."
Champion: Dakota Greer, Howard City Tri-County, Jr. (52-0)
Technical fall, 23-8, over Stuart Massa, Hemlock, Sr. (45-8)
Greer tries to not over-think things when he is on the wrestling mat.
He just wrestles, and that seems to work, as he won his second title.
"I won my freshman year, and I was feeling really confident coming into the match this year," Greer said. "I haven't wrestled that kid in forever, so I didn't really know what he would do. But I don't really think when I'm out there; it's just natural, I just do it."
Champion: Amante' Young, Clare, Jr. (53-4)
Decision, 11-6, over Hunter Corcoran, Lake Fenton, Sr. (56-3)
Young became a first Saturday night. He is the first champion crowned from Clare High School.
Young relied on quickness and athleticism for the victory.
"I can’t even describe it," Young said. "To win a state title and to be the first from Clare to win a state title, it's amazing. I thought it would only be a one-point match, going in. I was a little nervous before the match, but I've seen him wrestle before, and I knew he was bigger than me."
Champion: Jarrett Trombley, Lake Fenton, Jr. (57-0)
Decision, 9-6, over Keenan Gunnells, Brooklyn Columbia Central, Sr. (41-8)
Sometimes watching a teammate fall short of his dreams can inspire another to keep going.
That's what Trombley did when he watched teammate Corcoran lose in the championship match before his.
That helped motivate Trombley to win his third straight championship and keep his dream alive of becoming a four-time champion.
"It's always been one of my goals (to win four). I just came to compete and the match went my way," Trombley said. "After Hunter got beat, I was a little mad, but he wrestled a good match. We have been practice partners all year, and he just didn't come out on top today. I came in this year with one goal, and one goal only, and that was to win a state title. I kept on working harder and harder this year, and it paid off."
Champion: Nolan Saxton, Remus Chippewa Hills, Sr. (58-0)
Decision, 5-4, over Dallas Sortor, Ida, Jr. (50-3)
Saxton is a wrestler of few words.
He likes to let his talents do his talking on the mat, and they sure did this year, as the Chippewa Hills senior capped off a perfect 58-0 record.
"I wasn’t really nervous out there. I was just ready," Saxton said. "I'm just so happy right now."
Champion: Zachary Bellaire, Dundee, Jr. (38-5)
Decision, 6-1, over Sean Trombley, Lake Fenton, Soph. (53-6)
Bellaire and the Dundee wrestling team took part in an epic championship match with Richmond last week at Central Michigan University.
Bellaire and his Vikings teammates lost on the eighth criteria, leaving a bad wrestling taste in the mouths of all Dundee faithful.
He helped ease the pain just a bit Saturday.
"He made a mistake, and I capitalized on it," Bellaire said. "All I had to do was wrestle for six minutes, and I knew I would win.
"It feels great to make it to the top of the podium. I used the loss we took at the team state meet last week as fuel against all the other kids I wrestled this week."
Champion: Tylor Orrison, Dundee, Jr. (42-5)
Fall, 4:44, over Glenn Beardsley, Farwell, Sr. (32-1)
Orrison didn't let an early takedown get to him. He knew if he kept working that the coaching and work he gets in his team's practice room would pay off.
"I knew I just had to out-compete him and just keep scoring," Orrison said. "Once he took me down, I knew I had to get a point back. It feels great; once I got that (chicken) wing in, I knew it was over."
Champion: Jacob Shoop, Scottville Mason Count Central, Sr. (52-1)
Technical fall, 17-1, over Gavin Morgan, Mount Morris, Fr. (48-4)
Experience got the better of youth at 152 pounds, as Shoop handled Mount Morris freshman Morgan.
"It feels incredible, just knowing everything I've done in the past has paid off. It’s a feeling like no other," Shoop said. "I felt like I controlled him during the whole match."
Champion: Sean Sterling, Dundee, Sr. (28-0)
Decision, 4-3, over Dylan Briggs, Corunna, Sr. (46-4)
Sterling didn't let his nerves get the best of him.
He proved that sometimes winning your second title can be tougher than earning that first championship, but was still able to do so by beating Corunna's Briggs.
"The first state title was a lot easier," Sterling said. "I was a lot more nervous during these Finals. Last year I had to get on top, but this year I had to say on top, and it's a lot easier to get on top than to stay on top. Last year's state title was for everyone who ever made a sacrifice for me, and this state championship is for me."
Champion: Collin Lieber, Croswell-Lexington, Sr. (44-0)
Decision, 4-3, over Daniel Thompson, Lake Odessa Lakewood, Sr. (44-2)
Lieber felt disrespected, and he wanted to prove a point.
"I got the third seed coming into this tournament, and I wanted to prove everyone wrong," Lieber said. "I've finished second, third and second here, and last year was a devastating loss. I thought about it every day during practice, and if I was ever about to give up, I just reminded myself how bad I want that state title."
Champion: Brandon Whitman, Dundee, Jr. (45-0)
Decision, 9-3, over Colton McKiernan, Richmond, Jr. (47-5)
Whitman came into his high school career at Dundee with a lot of fanfare and a national ranking out of the youth ranks.
And he has lived up to his lofty billing by winning his third straight championship.
"It feels pretty good," Whitman said of his third title. "It kind of dies down at the end, but feels good. I was very confident coming into this tournament. I knew that if I wrestled well, no one would touch me. Now the only goal is winning my fourth state title next year."
Champion: Jared Roehl, Millington, Sr. (38-0)
Decision, 6-1, over Tyler Marino, Richmond, Jr. (47-6)
Two titles are good, even if three would have felt better to Millington senior Roehl.
"I had a big chip on my shoulder, because I lost by one point last year, and trained all offseason for this match," Roehl said.
And the hard work paid off, as he controlled his match with Marino throughout and walked away with that second championship to cap an accomplished career.
"It feels amazing to redeem a loss from the Finals last year," Roehl said.
PHOTO: Lake Fenton’s Trent Hillger has his arm raised for the third time at the MHSAA Finals to celebrate his third championship 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.)