For the better part of the last four years, Dawson Blank and Patrick Kerr have been working to make each other better in the Linden wrestling room.
So when the seniors faced the prospect early this season of standing in each other’s way for an MHSAA individual title, they had to figure something out.
“Me and him are the best workout partners ever,” Blank said. “No matter what we were doing, we were going to make sure we didn’t have to wrestle each other at the state meet.”
Kerr – who battled injuries early in the season – has now dropped down to 140 pounds, and had a successful first weekend at the weight. He’s ranked No. 4 at 140 in Division 2 by MichiganGrappler.com. Blank is ranked No. 3 at 145. Before the rankings were updated Jan. 27, Blank was ranked No. 2 and Kerr No. 3, both at 145.
“I was going to stay right at 145 and just double enter, but me and Dawson have become pretty close, so I was like, I don’t want to mess up the chance for one of us to win a state title,” Kerr said. “At the beginning of the year I was thinking about going down to 140, then I wrestled at 145 and did fine. Then I went to 152 for (the Genesee County meet) and lost by one point in the finals, so I thought I could stay there. But I decided with all the injuries I’ve had, it was probably better to go down, and I was only weighing 148.”
Teammates with legitimate MHSAA title ambitions entering in the same weight is nothing new. Sometimes, while a rarity, they’ll square off in the title match. The most recent example came in 2015, when Corunna’s Jarrett Trombley (who is now at Lake Fenton) defeated teammate Tristan Serbus in the Division 3 final at 112 pounds.
Linden won’t have to worry about that, but it certainly has two wrestlers with legitimate title ambitions, even if they’re coming off two very different junior seasons.
Blank placed third at the MHSAA Finals a year ago at 145, despite it being his first trip to the season-ending tournament. He advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Austin Melton of DeWitt.
As a sophomore, Blank was a regional qualifier, and he credits Kerr and former teammate Bryce Davis for helping him make the leap as a junior.
“My buddy Bryce Davis, who graduated last year, and Patrick, they really pushed me in the room,” Blank said. “It was cool, because I could go from Bryce, who was bigger than me, to Patrick, and in our wrestling room I had two different partners with different styles.”
Blank is 30-2 this season with a pair of one-point losses – one coming at 160 pounds. He’s confident he can wrestle with anyone in the state at his weight class, and feels his experience at the 2016 Finals will help him as he prepares for another.
“I think my nerves going into the state meet last year were probably a lot higher than they will be this year,” Blank said. “I think I have more confidence, and I’ll be more ready for it.”
Blank was Linden’s lone Finals placer a year ago, but during the regular season it looked as though Kerr was on his way to accomplishing the same before a shoulder injury ended a promising season early.
“Patrick was on the same path, but he got injured in the conference finals,” Linden coach Todd Skinner said. “He was having a great season last year – he teched the (Division 4) state runner-up, then he (won by major decision against) the kid from Mason who ended up taking fifth. We knew that he had a shot, and he was going to be battling for it, but he got injured. It was just a bad situation.”
Kerr said sitting out a postseason he was set to thrive in was difficult, but his coach credited his attitude while sitting out.
“The run Dawson made last year, even though Patrick couldn’t be there, he was his training partner along with Bryce Davis,” Skinner said. “And it was cool to see how he supported him. They definitely support each other.”
Kerr is 25-2 on the season, and is now motivated to make up for lost time. Although it wasn’t always that way.
“I love wrestling, I love the sport, but (the injury) really hurt my drive,” he said. “In the summer, at least, I kind of got off track and wasn’t paying enough attention at summer practices as I should have. The coaches said, ‘You have to focus, get your stuff together and get after it.’ Then I was finally able to get back into the swing of things.”
With Kerr healthy and motivated, and Blank rolling toward the postseason, Linden has a powerful one-two punch in the middle of the lineup that Skinner can move around to suit his team’s needs.
“You’re able to adjust, and it’s all about matchups and styles,” Skinner said. “You want to try and see which matchup or style is best, and Patrick’s style is completely different than Dawson’s.”
Both wrestlers are hoping to be standing at the top of their own podiums next month at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and they agree that would be better than the possibility of meeting in the last match of the season.
The fact it was a possibility, however, gave a sense of pride to both.
“I thought it was awesome,” Blank said of the early-season rankings. “Two kids coming out of the same school that are ranked second and third, that’s awesome. Not many schools have that.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. 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) Linden's Dawson Blank, top, was his team's lone MHSAA Individual Finals placer last season. (Middle) Teammate Patrick Kerr, also top, hopes to join Blank among placers this winter after an injury ended his 2015-16. (Photos by Mary Kerr.)
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.)