Driven but not obsessed, senior Michael Higley has carried the torch for a family that first put Edwardsburg wrestling on the map.
The senior 119-pounder is stalking his fourth straight trip to the MHSAA Division 2 Individual Wrestling Finals and a title that’s eluded him.
All the while, he’s managed to achieve success without feeling much pressure or sacrificing the other important aspects of student-athlete life.
A third-generation MHSAA Finals qualifier, Higley has added much to his family’s grappling legacy in southwest Michigan. His grandfather, Mike (Big Mike), was the school’s first Finals qualifier as a junior in 1966 — just the third year of the program’s existence.
Higley’s father and current Edwardsburg coach, also named Mike (goes by Middle Mike), earned a spot on the podium in 1985 (fourth) and 1986 (third). Other members of the extended family were standout wrestlers in nearby Mishawaka, Ind.
“Little Mike” has had the best career of them all with the biggest prize still up for grabs. Ranked third in his weight class by michigangrappler.com, he boasted a 15-1 record as of Jan. 5.
“It has been awesome,” his father said. “We butt heads from time to time over different things, but it’s a very healthy relationship. We’re good friends and do a lot of hunting and fishing. This is just part of it. This helps create who he is as a young man, but it doesn’t define him as a young man.”
Coach Higley mentioned all the wrestlers he’s seen over the years who have measured their success as a person by what they’ve accomplished on the mat.
“He and I have had a lot of fun enjoying all the things that have come along the way,” Coach Higley added.
Michael Higley plans to study nursing while competing for NCAA Division II University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He’s looking to graduate with nearly a 4.0 grade-point average and is currently taking college classes. The work he’s put into academics has netted considerable financial aid.
But there’s unfinished business remaining in the prep ranks.
As a freshman at 103, Michael Higley earned Division 2 all-state status with a seventh place finish and 48-6 record. He was fifth overall at his weight in 2014 and placed a third time as a junior in 2015 when he turned in a third-place performance at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The pattern of improvement would put him at the top of the podium come March.
“I’m really excited for my last chance,” he said. “It has been my goal to get a state title since I was little and started wrestling at the age of 7.”
For nearly that long, he’s been battling with teammate Hunter Vargo, a senior at 125 pounds ranked fifth in Division 2 with a 16-2 record. Vargo is seeking a return trip to the Palace as well. He and Michael Higley have formed a perfect and productive practice partnership over the years on top of a close friendship.
“It’s great having him in the room,” Higley said. “He’s so great at scrambling; we get better every day pushing each other.”
Like any constantly competitive program, it starts at the lower levels. Before “Middle Mike” began coaching the varsity team five years ago, he was heavily involved in running camps, clinics and clubs for well over a decade ago.
“It was crucial in the development of these kids and getting them exposed at an early age to the fundamentals,” he said. “It has been critical to us in order to maintain that level we’re at.”
The Eddies advanced to the Team Regional Finals in 2014 and fell to Niles. Last winter, Edwardsburg failed to get out of an extremely tough District after losing by five points to a resurgent Sturgis squad. Still, the program made it a close Wolverine Conference race with perennial power Allegan to finish second in the league standings.
Coach Higley expects Edwardsburg to be in the mix again this season, but he’s keeping his fingers crossed that the Eddies don’t suffer any attrition.
“We’ve got some great individual athletes but our depth is thin,” he said of a team still dealing with some football-related injuries.
No matter the outcome for the team or individually, Michael Higley has cherished every minute being able to add to an Edwardsburg wrestling tradition.
“I’m really pleased with what I’ve done so far and what this class has done,” he said. “We all plan on helping when we get out of college and staying involved. I’m glad how we have represented the school overall.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) "Little Mike" Higley, in blue, wraps up an opponent. (Middle) Edwardsburg coach "Middle" Mike Higley and his son "Little" Mike have been their family's second and third generation of MHSAA Finals qualifiers. (Below) "Little Mike" Higley, top, is 15-1 this season. (Photos courtesy of the Higley family.)
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.)