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.)
Dominic D’Ambrosio’s answer when asked at 5 years old if he wanted to start wrestling was probably a clue for what was to come.
“I remember when my dad asked me if I wanted to wrestle,” D’Ambrosio said. “I think I just said, ‘Sure.’”
It’s not that D’Ambrosio would be nonchalant or aloof when it came to wrestling. He’s quite the opposite, actually. The work he’s put in has him unbeaten at 43-0 as a senior, ranked among the top four at 138 pounds in Division 3, and threatening to become the Spartans’ first Individual Finals champion.
The clue was that D’Ambrosio was going to be calm and cool on the mat, and have a grounded view of the sport off it, which has also helped him reach those heights.
“When I was younger, I got an award for being a cool cucumber – the Cool as a Cucumber award,” he said. “When I lose, I just look at it as I can get better from it. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s serious, the work you put into it, but it’s not so serious. If you lose, you just want to get better. I just like to get the work done.”
To be fair, D’Ambrosio doesn’t do much losing.
He’s dropped just nine matches during his four-year career, compared to 159 wins, and a third of those losses came against Dundee four-time Finals champion Braeden Davis, who is now unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country at 125 pounds as a true freshman at Penn State.
D’Ambrosio was 14-0 as a freshman when COVID-19 ended the Spartans’ 2020-21 season short of the postseason. He placed third at the Finals as a sophomore, and fifth as a junior.
He has his eyes on the ultimate prize this year, and for a moment he allowed the thought to get him out of his even-keeled nature. But even that doesn’t last long.
“It would be pretty special,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for it. But, either way, I’m just going to go and leave it all out there.”
D’Ambrosio is the son of Imlay City coach Tony D’Ambrosio, which in some cases could create more pressure. But not this one. And a lot of that could be credited to Tony.
“We always tried to keep the pressure low and just have fun,” said Tony D’Ambrosio, who is in his 10th year at the helm in Imlay City. “We just focus on getting better. He’s always just wrestled. It’s just how he is. Dominic doesn’t even look at the brackets. He doesn’t find out who he’s wrestling until he shakes hands.”
What happens after they shake hands isn’t what one would expect from someone who could win that same Cool as a Cucumber award every year.
D’Ambrosio’s matches typically don’t last long. Of his 159 wins, 105 have come by pin, including all three of his wins at the 2023 Individual Finals. As a junior, he set the school pin record at 41. This season, 32 of his 43 wins have been by pinfall.
Just four of his matches have gone beyond the first period this season, and only two of those have gone the distance.
“This year, he’s really been turning it all on,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “He didn’t start pinning a lot until later on into middle school and high school. It’s just basic stuff, not anything fancy. He’s a nice kid, but when he’s on the mat, he’s going to turn you over.”
Dominic isn’t a thrower, and his pins aren’t the result of catching an opponent in anything fluky. He’s just meticulous, and able to take advantage of any opening he’s given.
“I’m (working on a half Nelson) 100 times, 200 times during the week, so I’ll be able to hit it during the weekend,” he said. “If I got somebody’s head, nobody is getting out of it. I can just flow really well into a pinning sequence.”
As he pins his way through the season, D’Ambrosio is racking up awards. He’s been named Most Valuable Wrestler at four tournaments bouncing between 138 and 144, and at one point found himself ranked No. 1 by Michigan Grappler at 138.
As you would expect, he hasn’t allowed that to get to his head, and as his father puts it, “the only ranking that matters is the podium.”
With District tournaments this week, D’Ambrosio now can focus 100 percent of his efforts on getting to the top of that podium. But don’t expect the pressure to mount in his house or on the mat.
“It would be special,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “But, again, as long as he goes out there and just does what he does, and does his best – it’s kind of like the NCAAs, you have to have a good weekend. It doesn’t dictate who you are. It would be awesome, and it’s a great goal to have. It would be a great goal to accomplish and be the first (from Imlay City). But wherever he ends up, I’m going to be proud of what he’s done.”
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) Imlay City’s Dominic D’Ambrosio, right, wrestles to a fifth-place finish at 132 pounds in Division 3 last season at Ford Field. (Middle) D’Ambrosio, right, takes to the mat during his early years in the sport. (Below) D’Ambrosio, right, works to pin an opponent. (Top photo by High School Sports Scene; other photos courtesy of the D’Ambrosio family.)