By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half
AUBURN HILLS – Last wrestling season ended in heart-breaking fashion for Hudson senior Kyle Johnson.
This year, spurred on by the memory of his grandfather, Johnson wrapped up his high school wrestling career in a big way by winning the 160-pound title in Division 4.
Johnson outlasted Spencer Knizacky of Scottville Mason County Central 4-2 in the Final to finish the season with a 49-8 record.
“Last year my grandpa passed away, and I was not mentally into it,” Johnson said. “This year, I dedicated my season to him. My grandpa meant a lot to me. He showed me how to be a man.”
Immediately after clinching the title, and in the process winning his 200th career match, Johnson put on the black T-shirt with orange lettering that said “RIP Gramps, this one is for you.”
“This title was for him,” Johnson said. “I stayed focused all season because of him.”
Champion: Tucker Sholl, Hudson, Fr. (48-3)
Major Decision, 11-0, over Reese Fry, Manchester, Soph. (44-7)
Practice partners throughout the season, Hudson’s Sholl and Jordan Hamden came into the Finals looking to hit a freshman daily-double by winning the 103 and 112-pound titles. Sholl completed his part in impressive fashion, as he didn’t allow a point en route to winning a major decision.
“It feels real good,” Sholl said. “We practice together every day. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours we put in working out together.”
Champion: Jordan Hamdan, Hudson, Fr. (51-6)
Decision, 5-1, over Noah Comar, Clinton, Fr. (55-4)
Hamdan completed the freshman double-dip by defeating a familiar foe in fellow freshman Noah Comar of Clinton. Hamdan scored a two-point near fall in the second period and then put the match away with an escape and takedown in the third period.
“It’s very special to win it as freshmen with Tucker,” Hamdan said. “We’ve been practicing together since grade school. We go at each other in practice and show each other a lot of different styles. I think we strengthen each other.”
The MHSAA title was also the second for the Hamdan family as Jordan’s older brother Roddy won a title during his sophomore year.
“My brother helped me out a lot,” Jordan said. “He has really given me a lot of support and helped me reach my goal.”
Champion: Robert LeFevre, Erie-Mason, Jr. (39-0)
Decision, 6-1, over Coy Helmuth, Decatur, Jr. (49-6)
After falling short in overtime in the 112-pound title match last year, LeFevre was determined to take the final step this season.
LeFevre turned in a workmanlike performance as he took a 2-0 lead in the first period, then built the lead to 4-0 in the second before closing out the match with two more points in the third period.
“I was just more mentally focused this year,” LeFevre said. “I put in a lot more work during the offseason, and it paid off. Words can’t explain how good this feels.”
LeFevre also finished the season with a perfect record despite bumping up in weight class several times for the good of the team.
“The undefeated record is nice,” LeFevre said. “It’s really exciting to get it here in the Finals. I finished third as a freshman, second last year and now first this year.”
Champion: Robert Rogers, Burton Bentley, Soph. (48-0)
Decision, 8-6, over Davian Gowens, Hesperia, Sr. (43-4)
Burton Bentley may not be a household name on the list of outstanding Genesee County wrestling schools, but Bentley sophomore Robert Rogers is single-handedly changing that. Rogers became the first Bentley wrestler to win an individual MHSAA title in 39 years.
“This shows everybody that someone from a little school can win a state title just like the big school down the road,” Rogers said. “This is really thrilling. It shows that hard work pays off. I’m here not just for myself, but for my teammates and my coaches. This is for them.”
Rogers placed third at the MHSAA Finals last year and came back this year focused on improving.
“My coaches kept me level-headed all season,” Rogers said. “Losing in the Semifinals last year gave me a lot of extra motivation.”
Champion: Dallas O’Green, Carson City-Crystal, Sr. (59-0)
Decision, 8-2, over Ethan Woods, Manchester, Jr. (48-3)
O’Green ended his career in a big way. Not only did he win a second straight championship, but he finished his senior season with a perfect record.
“This one is very special,” O’Green said. “It’s a big accomplishment. We don’t get many wrestlers winning two state titles in a row at our school.”
O’Green ended his career as a four-time Finals placer as he took sixth as a freshman and third as a sophomore. That accomplishment is something he shares with his coach Trent Ward.
“That has only happened once in our school’s history, and that was our coach,” O’Green said. “That makes it very special. I feel like we have the best coaches in Division 4, and to be a four-time state placer like Coach is amazing.”
Champion: Sean O’Hearon, Springport, Jr. (49-1)
Decision 6-1, over Clay Ragon, Dansville, Sr. (51-5)
After placing fourth last year, O’Hearon was not about to let an opportunity pass him by this winter. O’Hearon took an early 2-1 lead and then built the lead to 5-1 in the second period.
“I just kept the pressure on him,” O’Hearon said. “We have a lot of pride in Springport wrestling, and I was glad to represent our school and our tradition.”
O’Hearon also represented his family well along with his cousin, Austin O’Hearon, who wrestles for Eaton Rapids and placed seventh at 125 pounds in Division 2.
“We’re hoping that next year me and him will both be state champs,” O’Hearon said. “We get together to practice a lot. Working out with him has really helped me.”
Champion Dresden Simon, Dansville, Sr. (52-1)
Fall, 1:30, over Konnor Holton, St. Louis, Jr. (41-5)
Simon wasted little time in winning his second straight MHSAA title, as he recorded a fall in the first period.
“Winning a state title was something I expected,” Simon said. “I’ve been working hard for it. I put in a lot of hard work for it, and it paid off. I went out there and tried to push the pace.”
Simon, who is headed to Central Michigan University to wrestle next season, won the 130-pound title last year.
Champion: Cole Hersch, New Lothrop, Sr. (51-1)
Fall, 4:00, over Gerrit Yates, Hesperia, Soph. (53-5)
For Hersch, it was his first time in the title match and only chance he would get to win an individual championship. The senior from New Lothrop, who has been part of three team MHSAA championship teams, didn’t let the opportunity slip by.
“This is just an amazing feeling,” Hersch said. “I lost in the second round all three years I’ve been here. To win it like this as a senior is amazing.”
Hersch’s title was the fourth individual title of the Finals for New Lothrop, as 145 was the final weight contended at this year’s meet.
“For our team to win four individual state titles is pretty special,” Hersch said.
Champion: Steven Garza II, New Lothrop, Sr. (57-1)
Decision, 9-5 over Zeth Caudill, Springport, Sr. (42-5)
After finishing as an undefeated individual champion last season, Garza came back and won a second straight title and finished his senior year with a 57-1 record.
“This is something I’ve wanted all year,” Garza said. “I’m grateful to be here and to be able to take home the state title. There are some great wrestlers here, and to be able to win two state titles is an awesome feeling.”
Garza jumped out to the early lead in the match and controlled the pace throughout.
“Last year I was really nervous,” Garza said. “It was the first one. This one I was still a little nervous, but the jitters were a little different this time.”
Champion: Erik Birchmeier, New Lothrop, Jr. (34-2)
Decision, 7-5 SV-1, over Mark Workman, Hesperia, Sr. (34-1)
Persistence paid off for Birchmeier. Trailing 5-2 going into the third period, he battled back to tie the match at 5-5 and then won in overtime.
“When I was trailing 5-2 I knew I needed to get after it,” Birchmeier said. “I gave it everything I had to bring it to overtime. I knew I just had to keep the pressure on.”
Champion: Nick Cooper, Springport, Jr. (41-1)
Fall, 1:49, over Hunter Sadler, Munising, Sr. (54-3)
Cooper’s older brother Jacob was a three-time MHSAA champion who graduated last year. This year Nick claimed his first title to carry on the family tradition.
“I can tell him that I’ve got one now,” Cooper said. “My brother has been very supportive of me. He has really helped me out a lot.”
Winning his own was actually less nerve-wracking for Jacob.
“I actually get more nervous watching him then when I wrestle myself,” Cooper said. “This really means a lot to me.”
Champion: Caleb Symons, New Lothrop, Sr. (55-1)
Fall, 2:35, over Devon Kozel, Bangor, Jr. (48-1)
After taking second at 189 pounds last year, Symons was not to be denied. A second period pin gave Symons the championship and also the 150th win of his career.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Symons said. “Losing last year tore me apart. Winning it this year made it all worthwhile.”
In his second appearance in the Finals, Symons was more comfortable.
“Being here last year, I was not as nervous this time,” Symons said.
Champion: Kevin Koenig, Laingsburg, Sr. (55-1)
Fall, 1:22, over Logan Kennedy, Decatur, Jr. (49-6)
A Finals champion as a sophomore, Koenig dropped a two-point decision in last year’s 215-pound title match. This time, Koenig left nothing to chance.
“Heck yeah, this feels real good,” Koenig said. “Being a two-time state champion, not many people have done it. It definitely feels great.”
Koenig won all four of his matches at these MHSAA Finals with first-period falls.
“I’ve pretty much been doing it all season,” Koenig said. “I can’t describe the feeling of winning a second one.”
The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTO: Hudson's Kyle Johnson works to gain control against Farwell's Garrett McQuiston during Friday's Semifinal match. (Click to see more at 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.)