GRAND RAPIDS – Jacob Gonzales tasted defeat at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals as a freshman, and he didn’t want to do that again.
So the Holly junior has decided not to lose. At all.
Gonzales claimed his second straight Division 2 championship Friday at Van Andel Arena, defeating St. Joseph’s Jacob Halsey 4-0 at 152 pounds. The win capped off a second-straight undefeated championship season for Gonzales (21-0), who is 76-0 over the past two.
“Just not holding back,” Gonzales said of the change in his mindset after his freshman year. “You let your nerves get to you, and you can’t wrestle the same. So, if you just let it go on the mat, you’ll have no regrets and you’re going to wrestle better. It helps just to stay focused and not let the nerves get to you.”
Gonzales was confident coming into the tournament, and, frankly, the season. He made the choice to wrestle at 152 pounds, as that’s where he wants to wrestle at Fargo Nationals, where he hopes to prove himself at “the next level.”
He still has a year to continue proving himself at the state level, even though he’s done plenty of that already, including in his win against Halsey (34-1), who entered the match unbeaten.
“You win it once, you’re like, ‘OK,’” Gonzales said. “But when you get it multiple times, it proves the hard work you put in year to year, that you’re getting better.”
Champion: Adam Polk, Pontiac, Fr. (11-1)
Decision, 5-3, over Cody Richards, Monroe Jefferson, Jr. (21-1)
Polk won the matchup between the two wrestlers on his feet to hand Richards his first loss of the season and claim a title in his first season.
“Defense and getting my positioning,” Polk said of the keys to the match. “I just wanted to score more and rack up more points.”
Polk wasn’t looking to the future and his possibilities, but the first title was something he said he envisioned.
“I worked hard this summer for it,” he said. “I just deserved it.”
Champion: Nolan Wertanen, St. Joseph, Jr. (36-0)
Decision, 9-4, over Adrian Rosas, Southgate Anderson, Sr. (21-1)
Wertanen exploded for a pair of takedowns in the opening period to take control in what was to became his second-straight Finals championship victory.
“Going into the tournament, I knew my toughest two matches would be probably my semis and the finals,” Wertanen said. “I think what did it for me is that I went out in my semis match and won 10-0, a dominant win, so having that, knowing against that caliber, I was there.”
Finishing the season unbeaten was a major motivation for Wertanen.
“I really wanted to come out this year and make a statement,” he said. “Last year, I took some losses that I shouldn’t have. I remember in February (2020), I took a loss and from that moment forward I was like, ‘This isn’t me. This is not how I want to represent St. Joe, and this is not how I want to represent myself.’”
Champion: Jack Parker, Spring Lake, Sr. (29-1)
Decision, 6-1, over Tayden Miller, Mason, Soph. (12-3)
Parker became the second champion all-time for Spring Lake, and first in 53 years.
“It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “I’ve never felt anything like this before. It’s the happiest day of my life.”
Parker took control of the match with a pair of first-period takedowns, and put it away in the third with a two-point nearfall.
“I kind of have the same strategy every match,” he said. “Work to my ties, make it my match, don’t react, make them react to what I’m doing.”
Champion: Joe Haynes, Warren Woods Tower, Sr. (24-1)
Decision, 5-1, over Aaron Lucio, Stevensville Lakeshore, Soph. (23-1)
Haynes closed out his illustrious career with a fourth-straight top-three finish, and second-straight individual title.
“It was a little more exciting – a closer match, definitely,” Haynes said of the difference between his second and first titles. “This is how it is, I guess.”
The score was tied at 1 late, and Lucio nearly made a big move, but Haynes countered it for a throw of his own to put the match away in its final seconds.
“I was looking for the pressure. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to throw me,” Haynes said. “So, I was just looking for the pressure to get my throw, and I went for it, because when there’s 30 seconds on the clock, 1-1, you have to go for it.”
Champion: Dru Wilson, Warren Woods Tower, Sr. (18-5)
Decision, 6-5, over Gage Race, Jackson Northwest, Soph. (20-5)
Wilson made it two titles in a matter of minutes for Tower, as he closed out his first Finals championship shortly after Haynes had captured his.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Wilson said. “I’m just so excited right now, I don’t know what to say.”
Wilson held a 4-2 lead late, before he went crashing into the scorer’s table. He shook it off to get a takedown and wrap up the title.
“My calf hit the table pretty hard, but after like a couple seconds I didn’t really feel it because there was so much adrenaline going through my body,” he said. “It was just an amazing match. Good job on him, too. I’m so happy with myself right now. I put in so much work to get here.”
Champion: Zeth Strejc, Lowell, Sr. (23-3)
Decision, 7-6, over Caden Peterman, Greenville, Sr. (23-3)
In a rematch of the Regional Final, which Strejc won, the Lowell senior had to hold on late to pick up his first individual Finals title. Peterman scored a late takedown to pull within two, but Strejc didn’t allow any other points.
“I had a little bit better of a gameplan this time with him,” Strejc said. “I knew he was a really good mat wrestler. I knew he was going to be going for Granbys and the Pearsons there, so I just had to stay mentally tough.”
After winning a team title on Tuesday, and four more matches Friday, Strejc’s immediate reaction following the match wasn’t to take a break.
“I’m just ready to keep going,” he said. “What’s the next thing to do. I love the sport. I’ve been doing it since I was a little guy.”
Champion: Carter Hinson, Zeeland East, Sr. (25-0)
Decision, 4-3, over Joshua Hettrick, Dearborn Heights Annapolis, Sr. (21-3)
Hinson learned to appreciate the grind of wrestling this season, and when his final match ended with him claiming his first individual Finals title, he was able to celebrate the fruits of his labor.
“It’s all worth it,” he said. “I’ve struggled with wanting to go to practice in the past because it’s a grind, and some days you just don’t want to do it. So, when the final seconds ticked off the clock, it was just the greatest feeling.”
All the match’s scoring took place in the second period, as Hinson scored a pair of takedowns. He held Hettrick off in the final seconds to secure the victory.
“I wanted to make sure my position was in check,” Hinson said. “And it was really just rolling through my head that now I’m a state champ.”
Champion: Jackson Hoover, Edwardsburg, Sr. (21-4)
Decision, 7-2, over Jack Conley, Lake Fenton, Soph. (31-6)
Hoover didn’t even wait for the post-match handshake before sprinting to his coaches to celebrate his first individual Finals title.
“I just thought about all that hard work that not only I put in, but my teammates and my coaches to get to this point,” Hoover said. “I just can’t thank them enough.”
He also didn’t waste much time, as he was able to get the match’s first takedown in the opening minute.
“I’ve always tried to be the aggressor and try to push the pace and get to my shots,” he said. “That’s ultimately what happened in that match.”
Champion: Doak Dean, Lowell, Sr. (28-2)
Decision, 7-1, over Carson Crace, Lowell, Soph. (21-5)
Dean and Crace won a Finals title together earlier in the week, as they led Lowell to its eighth straight Division 2 team championship. But when they met on the mat in the Individual Finals, they decided to go at it.
“We talked before, and we just said we’re going to scrap it out,” Dean said. “I didn’t expect him to hold back; he’s been working real hard all year just like me. We’re teammates at the end of the day, and when we came off the mat, we’re still really good buddies. On the mat, we were just wrestling like we normally do.”
Dean won the match on his feet, getting a takedown in all three periods, and didn’t give up a point until a late escape for Crace in the third period.
“It’s special,” he said. “I think it represents more than just me being the best person on a bracket today and this year. It’s a testament to this team, the culture here, the community here, the support from our administration at the school. Everybody was in on this, it wasn’t just me out here today.”
Champion: Jacob Lee, Lowell, Sr. (22-1)
Decision, 7-5, over Kael Wisler, New Boston Huron, Jr. (24-3)
Lee scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds to put away a tight match.
“I knew he was going to come after me, and then I got a stalling call on the edge which is when I kind of flipped the switch,” Lee said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to go get this kid,’ because he wouldn’t be expecting that. I’m up by one point, so if I get a takedown, that seals the match.”
The win capped off a hectic, but bountiful week for Lee and his Lowell teammates.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I definitely take pride in the team state title more. That takes a lot of guys making a lot of sacrifices.”
Champion: Cody Brenner, New Boston Huron, Sr. (27-2)
Decision, 4-0, over Vincent Scaramuzzino, Croswell-Lexington, Sr. (26-1)
Brenner dropped a match to Scaramuzzino earlier in the season, and he wasn’t about to let that happen again. He took a 3-0 lead in the second period and rode Scaramuzzino out in the third period to claim his title.
“I wrestled him earlier in the season and I started to slack off later in the periods, and that’s how he was able to score his points,” Brenner said. “This match I was just working and working every single time, every minute of the period, every second of the match. I was just going after him.”
The advantage in the top position came from years of work, and studying.
“I’ve been practicing riding against tough guys since freshman year,” Brenner said. “I’ve been finding different angles, different ways to keep people down. Watching the NCAA guys, college guys and the pro guys, just watching them to see what they do to keep people down.”
Champion: CJ Crum, St. Johns, Sr. (36-0)
Decision, 4-2, over Ian Norscia, Southgate Anderson, Sr. (18-1)
Crum took a shot to the forehead late in the matchup of unbeatens but was able to hold Norscia off in the final seconds to secure the victory.
“It was really funny, all week we were working on if someone gets in on your legs, kick, kick, kick,” Crum said. “That’s really what happened at the end. I really got control with my inside ties and I just tried to own him.”
Crum scored a takedown in the first period and maintained his advantage through the match.
“It’s something I’ve been working for so hard for four years,” Crum said. “When you put so much time in on the practice mat and it finally comes through, it’s amazing.”
Champion: Keegan Nugent, Lowell, Sr. (29-0)
Decision, 8-2, over Jaylen Culver, Romulus, Sr. (23-2)
Nugent found himself trailing after a Culver takedown in the first 20 seconds, but he fought back and dominated the rest of the match to claim his first individual title.
“Pure joy,” Nugent said. “Pure joy having my whole community behind me. My brother and everyone just here to support me and help me grow as a person.”
Nugent joined the parade of Lowell individual champions.
“It’s way cooler to do it with teammates,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine being here by myself.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Holly's Jacob Gonzales, left, wrestles for his second-straight Division 2 championship Friday at Van Andel Arena. (Middle) St. Joseph's Nolan Wertanen, left, gains control at 112 pounds on the way to his repeat championship. (Below) Warren Woods Tower's Joe Haynes looks to take his shot during his Finals match at 125; he also won a second-straight title. (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.)