By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
LINDEN — The books are never too far away from Trent Hillger, even as he works to put his name in the Lake Fenton wrestling record books.
On Monday night, as he does occasionally, Hillger rode for an hour across mid-Michigan to work out with partners who could challenge him.
As his mother drove him home, Hillger studied with the aid of a flashlight. At breakfast the next morning, he squeezed in some more study time. On the ride to school, he put the finishing touches on a paper.
That preceded another full day at school, followed by time in the weight room and wrestling practice.
It's the price of excellence for Hillger, on the mat and in the classroom.
"It's something a lot of kids don't have to experience," said Hillger's father, David, the athletic trainer at Lake Fenton. "Good or bad, it's just something he's had to learn to deal with. I'm proud of him, because that's a challenge every day. It's not like a lot of kids who just go home and study for two or three hours; he doesn't have that liberty."
Hillger, perfect on the mat the last two seasons, is nearly perfect in the classroom. The junior carries a 3.97 grade-point average, with an A-minus in an advanced-placement class standing between him and a 4.0.
"I really have to schedule my time every week, because I'm so busy," he said.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder was already a standout defensive end/outside linebacker for Lake Fenton when he filled a need at quarterback last fall. As one of the biggest quarterbacks in the state, he ran 141 times for 1,342 yards and 19 touchdowns in a run-oriented offense. He was an effective passer on those rare occasions when the Blue Devils threw the ball, going 25 for 39 for 503 yards and five touchdowns.
Defensively, he had 13 tackles for losses, five sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
"It was definitely a wildcat type of offense," Hillger said. "I ran the ball probably 20 times a game."
He led Lake Fenton into the second round of the MHSAA Division 4 playoffs, where the Blue Devils lost to eventual runner-up Flint Powers Catholic. For his efforts, Hillger received special mention on The Associated Press' all-state team.
But it's as a wrestler that Hillger has made the biggest name for himself.
After placing fourth in the MHSAA Division 3 individual tournament and going 57-8 at 171 pounds as a freshman, Hillger joined his head coach as Lake Fenton's only sophomore champions when he won the 215-pound title to cap a 58-0 season.
Vance Corcoran was Lake Fenton's first MHSAA champion, in the 1985 Class C tournament, then won again as a senior in 1987.
Shaun Mann (1994-95) and Ryan Ruddy (1996-97) are Lake Fenton's only other two-time champions.
"We've never had a three-timer, so he's got a chance to do that," Corcoran said. "We've had some really good kids come through the program; Trent's right there. Not only is he a great kid, but he's respected by all of his teammates. He's a 4.0 student, he's one of the best captains we've ever had and he's dependable."
Hillger is 39-0 in his quest to join the list of Lake Fenton's two-time champions. Of those victories, only three weren't pins or forfeits. He won one match by technical fall, one by a 6-1 decision over 2015 Division 1 qualifier Brandon Krol of Hartland ... and one in a match that exceeded the hype.
Hillger went four overtimes against Lapeer's Dan Perry on Dec. 19 in a battle between two MHSAA champions who are ranked among the top nine nationally. With an escape in the fourth overtime, Hillger escaped with a 4-3 victory in the Genesee County Wrestling Championships at Davison.
"It's exciting," Hillger said. "I like having close matches like that, but it's a little nerve-racking having an overtime match."
Hillger, who has won 97 straight high school matches, is ranked No. 6 nationally at heavyweight by InterMat and No. 8 by FloWrestling. Perry, who has signed with Michigan, is No. 4 in FloWrestling's rankings and No. 9 on InterMat. The two are expected to meet again on Saturday in the Lapeer Tournament.
"I look at them, yeah," Hillger said of the rankings. "It's cool. College is where it all matters. That's what I'm looking forward to if I choose wrestling."
Hillger's combination of academic and athletic prowess has attracted the attention of Ivy League schools for football and wrestling. He's also been recruited by Iowa, Missouri, Wake Forest and Eastern Michigan for football. In wrestling, Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan and North Carolina State have expressed interest.
While choosing which school to attend, Hillger also has to decide which sport to continue at the next level. That decision may be more difficult.
"I have choices for both," said Hillger, who wants to get into sports nutrition or athletic training. "I'd say in wrestling I have a bit more, but they're the same level, the same caliber of teams. I couldn't decide. I've been doing both of them my whole life. It'll be a tough decision when I decide next year which sport I'll go into."
Hillger is a unique wrestling athlete in that he's successfully made the jump from 171 pounds to heavyweight in two years' time. The skills that were necessities in the lower weight class serve Hillger well against the big boys in a division that maxes out at 285 pounds.
"During the summer, I knew I'd be at heavyweight, so I started wrestling up in weight classes," Hillger said. "I was wrestling really small. I'd wrestle 280-pound guys at 200 pounds, just to get used to it; it transferred over. Now I'm really comfortable at heavyweight. You've just got to use your speed and don't get stuck underneath a guy. Once you get stuck underneath, you're not getting up."
Hillger said he kept "my little-man mentality" when he moved up to heavyweight.
"I'm trying to stay fast, but I also got stronger in the other weight classes," he said. "That helped me to be faster than everyone else and still have the strength of the big guys. A lot of heavyweights wrestle up top. I like to stay low and take a bunch of shots, keep the pace going, make it a fast pace."
Like many wrestlers who enter elite high school programs, Hillger had a wealth of experience at a high level since he began competing at age 6. What set him apart was that he was having immediate success in one of the heavier weight classes.
"From day one, the kid's come in and he's mature and he's a hard worker," Corcoran said. "So, all the seniors took to him right away. They saw his work ethic. We get freshmen come in every now and then who come in like that, but not at the 171 weight class where he's wrestling men. Right away, he dominated. He's kept that same work ethic. I think it's even gotten better over the years, if that's possible."
Hillger is trying to not only repeat as an individual champion, but get Lake Fenton its first team title.
The Blue Devils are 27-3 and ranked No. 3 in Division 3 by MichiganGrappler.com. They are coming off a 42-22 victory on Wednesday over perennial power New Lothrop, the top-ranked team in Division 4.
"We should make the Finals," Hillger said. "Our team is very good, so the Finals is definitely a realistic goal. It will be tough to beat (top-ranked) Dundee; we'll have to have a few matches go our way."
Hillger has traveled across the country wrestling at a high level throughout his summers, but said the camaraderie of high school wrestling is hard to beat.
"It's an individual sport, but having your whole team cheering you on the side is nice," he said. "Seeing how far your team can go in team states is cool, seeing the whole team come together.
"When I wrestle by myself, I always have friends around at national tournaments, but it's not the same as having your team on the sidelines, getting excited for your matches."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Trent Hillger works against Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Grant Tennihill during last season's MHSAA Division 3 Final at 215 pounds. (Middle) Hillger stands at the top of the podium after winning the championship. (Click for more photos 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.)