DETROIT – DJ Daniels didn’t have many close calls this season, but the Caro senior 160-pounder had a couple on his way to a second straight Division 3 championship – one on the mat, and one off.
Daniels won a battle of undefeated wrestlers Saturday at Ford Field, defeating Seth Konynenbelt of Hudsonville Unity Christian 6-4 in the championship match.
To qualify for that final, Daniels not only had to win three matches Friday, he also had to take an impromptu 2-mile run through downtown Detroit to make it just in time for his semifinal match.
“My coach and I got stuck in the People Mover and they finally got it turned back on, but they shut it down when we got to the next stop, and we were about 2.1 miles away,” Daniels said. “So we just started jogging, hoping we’d get here in time. I was in the hole when we arrived, then I put my shoes on and got down here and I was on deck. My quads hurt a little bit, but other than that I was ready to go.”
Daniels won that semifinal match 7-1 against Trenton Blanchard of Whitehall. One day later, a more well-rested Daniels took the mat and completed his 56-0 season.
“It’s amazing,” Daniels said. “If this is the end of my career, it’s definitely how I wanted it to be.”
He had to hold off a valiant effort by Konynenbelt (48-1), who nearly turned Daniels to take a lead in the second period and came close to tying the match with a takedown in the final seconds on the edge of the mat. Daniels held him off, however, to get the win.
“I knew the situation, I knew we were right on the line,” Daniels said. “He had my leg, and I knew if I could just get his feet out of bounds, we would go back to neutral, and I’d be all right. That’s all I told myself.”
Champion: Mike Nykoriak, Algonac, Sr. (48-1)
Decision, 4-3, over Brock Kuhn, Michigan Center, Sr., (46-2)
Nykoriak became the first Finals champion for Algonac since 1999, getting a third-period takedown and holding on for the win.
“I knew he scored first points, and heavyweight matches go into triple overtime, so he would have had first choice,” Nykoriak said. “I knew I had to get a takedown for it to work.
“Just seeing every day at practice, the alumni coming to practice, all the old coaches who come every day to work with us because they believe in us, and they believe in me. I’m just happy I was able to make them proud.”
Champion: Casey Swiderski, Dundee, Fr. (46-2)
Technical Fall, 5:17 (23-7), over Hunter Keller, Richmond, Soph. (27-6)
Swiderski, ranked No. 9 in the country at 106 pounds according to FloWrestling, finished off a dominant season with a dominant performance in his first Finals.
The freshman won three of his matches by technical fall, including the final against Keller, who he had defeated a week earlier to help Dundee claim a second straight Division 3 team title.
“I felt good,” Swiderski said. “I had kind of a tough weight cut, but I got energy in me and I scored points; that’s what I wanted to do. It’s just more matches. It’s fun.”
Champion: Hunter Assenmacher, Ida, Jr. (50-3)
Decision, 6-2, over Jordan Rodriguez, Chesaning, Jr. (44-4)
Assenmacher won his second straight Division 3 title after winning a year ago at 103 pounds.
It was Rodriguez, however, who drew first blood, getting a first-period takedown and taking a 2-0 lead. Assenmacher regrouped, though, and scored the match’s final six points to come away with the victory.
“It felt good to get back out there again in the finals; it was a good atmosphere,” Assenmacher said. “This time I definitely felt more prepared and more calm. I kind of felt like I belonged there, so it kind of helped me to stay relaxed when I was wrestling.”
Champion: Jake Elasivich, Montrose, Soph. (50-7)
Decision, 10-4, over Brendan Connelly, Yale, Jr. (48-10)
Elasivich battled through a tough bracket, which saw the No. 1 seed and a returning champion fall before the semifinals.
The Montrose sophomore controlled his match against Connelly, winning the battles on his feet and allowing just four escape points against him. It was just 6-4 late, however, before he earned another takedown to seal the win.
“I felt confident because I’m always on my attacks, always getting a takedown,” Elasivich said. “I felt confident I could pull one more out for the win. I just wanted to keep doing the same things I had been doing – keep my energy high and my pace high, just work the kids and in the end get the win.”
Champion: Corey Gamet, Michigan Center, Sr. (47-0)
Decision, 10-4, over Macintyre Breece, Birch Run, Jr. (49-5)
Gamet finished a perfect senior season with the win against Breece, but he was disappointed an incredible run of not allowing an offensive point all season did come to an end.
“I’m not happy about being reversed or being scored on offensively,” Gamet said. “But once we got on our feet and I got that takedown, I knew there was nothing he could do – nobody can take me down. I felt like I was in a good spot.”
Gamet is now a three-time Finals champion, having won Division 2 titles in 2016 and 2017 while at Parma Western.
Champion: Josh Rankin, Michigan Center, Sr. (40-4)
Decision, 4-2, over Luke Mahaney, Williamston, Soph. (33-8)
After Gamet walked off the mat victorious, Michigan Center made it two in a row, as Rankin claimed his first Finals title.
“That’s the best feeling in the world – it means that much more,” Rankin said. “Having your best friend out there before you, then you win it right after. We even hit the same celebration.”
Rankin said Mahaney did a good job of countering his go-to moves, something he had to react to in the moment.
“I felt pretty good – you could definitely tell they prepared for me a little bit more,” Rankin said. “I try to be as versatile as I can, but there are some things that you just do that people figure out. I think they definitely figured some of my stuff out and prepared for it a little bit better.”
Champion: Jonathon White, Dundee, Sr. (39-9)
Decision, 1-0, over Tyler Swiderski, Dundee, Soph. (28-11)
White and Swiderski have seen a lot of each other in the Dundee wrestling room over the past two years, and it showed on the mat as the only point scored was a White escape.
“Throughout the year we were battling at tournaments,” White said. “I had a hunch at the beginning of this tournament that I would wrestle him in the finals. It was awkward, but I just tried to stay calm and do what I had to do to win.”
The victory capped off a great postseason for White, who also clinched Dundee’s team championship victory against Richmond the week prior.
“It’s not a bad two weekends,” he said. “To be back-to-back team state champs then finally come home with my individual, it means the world. I’ve worked so hard to become a state champ, and my dream came true.”
Champion: Hayden Bastian, Richmond, Sr. (32-5)
Decision, 6-2 (2OT), over Christian Killion, Dundee, Jr. (44-6)
With the chance to choose bottom in the ultimate tiebreaker, Bastian felt confident. But before he could get there, he saw an opening.
Bastian caught Killion on a shot and took him to his back, breaking a 2-all tie and claiming his first Finals championship.
“Ultimate overtime, I felt I would have had that as well, but the (back points) just helped and it worked out really well,” Bastian said. “I played through the whole campaign, and I feel like I did well against the final boss.”
Champion: Trevor Robinson, Shepherd, Sr. (45-2)
Fall, 4:42, over Max Halstead, Grayling, Jr. (41-4)
With a pair of runner-up finishes already under his belt (2016 and 2018), Robinson was determined to finish his career on top of the podium.
He was in control of his finals match, and put it to rest in the third period with a pin. It was the most dominant performance of the weekend for the top-seeded wrestler.
“Honestly, I didn’t have any pressure, I just felt I was better than everyone and I had enough tools to win it all,” Robinson said. “It feels amazing. It’s crazy. I was just a little freshman a few years ago, and it just flies by. It feels amazing – the best feeling ever.”
Champion: Stoney Buell, Dundee, Soph. (45-8)
Decision, 1-0, over Sean Trombley, Lake Fenton, Sr. (50-2)
Buell continued his perfect Finals record, claiming a second straight title in a hard-fought match.
The only point scored was an escape, and Buell, who won at 135 a year ago, had been expecting that it wouldn’t be easy.
“He’s a three-time finalist, so I knew he was really good, really strong,” Buell said. “I really like my single, and I knew he wasn’t going to let me get that, so I really had to get two hands to it. I couldn’t finish one, and I had that stalling call, so I just had to keep going and going and going.”
Champion: Owen Guilford, Portland, Sr. (48-0)
Fall, 2:22, over Dillon Kroening, Gladwin, Jr. (50-2)
Guilford had a dominant weekend, racking up two falls and two major decisions. He capped it off with an early-second period pin to claim his second straight title and finish a perfect season.
A year ago, he became Portland’s first champion since 2000, and now he is the school’s first two-time champion.
“It feels pretty good,” Guilford said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my coaches, the support staff, my family and friends. And a big shoutout to Kyle Hines for, ever since second grade, being my practice partner all the way through. I can’t take any of this credit.”
Champion: Kendel Taylor, Madison Heights Bishop Foley, Sr. (37-4)
Decision, 9-3, over Kayleb Venema, Whitehall, Jr. (45-3)
After taking fourth in his region, Taylor wasn’t on many people’s radar heading into this weekend. But he pulled off more than one upset to defy the odds and claim the title.
With his victory, Taylor became Foley’s third Finals champion and first since 1971.
“It feels absolutely amazing,” Taylor said. “I can’t believe it. Coming in as a freshman trying to wrestle, then coming in as a senior and winning a state title, it’s like night and day. It’s amazing. I love it.”
Champion: Brockton Cook, Birch Run, Sr. (54-3)
Decision, 3-0, over Luke Davis, Richmond, Jr. (43-6)
In a Regional Final rematch, it was once again Cook coming out on top.
A single escape was the difference in the match late into the third period, but Cook was able to get a takedown and seal the win.
“I got that stalling call, and I was like, ‘If I’m going to get stalling, I might as well shoot now,’” Cook said. “I wasn’t going to get another stalling call to tie up the match. I took my shot and it worked, I guess.”
PHOTO: Caro’s DJ Daniels has his arm raised in victory after finishing an undefeated season with a Division 3 title. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
Bruce Bittenbender’s impact on the sport of wrestling in Michigan is immeasurable.
And the fact that he’ll no longer occupy a chair next to the mats at Stevensville Lakeshore High School is almost unfathomable after a legendary 52-year career there.
His list of accomplishments over that span is staggering, though the incalculable number of lives he touched — a realization that came from the outpouring of messages from his former student-athletes following his retirement announcement in late March — is what Bittenbender believes is the most important part of his legacy.
“It is absolutely heartwarming,” Bittenbender said at his retirement press conference April 1. “In many cases (some students) are on the edge. I had a guy say to me yesterday, ‘Coach, I didn’t have a father. I want to thank you.’
“How many state titles is that worth? There is a lot of that I appreciate.”
What can be quantified are the competition results during his tenure.
Bittenbender leaves with a dual meet record of 981-270-2 — the most victories in state history and the second most in the country. The program claimed 28 District titles, 13 Regional championships and 33 conference titles. The Lancers were undefeated in duals four times (1976, 1978, 1984 and 1986) and finished as MHSAA Finals runners-up twice (1986 and 1994).
“There are no shortcuts to being successful,” Lakeshore athletic director Greg Younger said. “Coach is always here. He’s probably here more than most teachers (although he retired in 2010). He is in the building early and often. He’s scrubbing the mats. I know it doesn’t magically happen. He’s always here preparing for a match and doing something here, talking to kids in the halls and building those relationships.
“He’s been a testament to hard work and what it takes to really have a goal all the time. When he steps into the wrestling room he’s always prepared, he’s always planning for tomorrow and he’s always planned for what’s coming up next. Nothing has ever surprised him.”
There were a total of 26 Individual Finals champions and 116 state placers under his watch, with Micah Hanau (also a winner in 2020), Zamuel Thompson and Aaron Lucio the most recent to have stood atop the podium and celebrate championships with Bittenbender last month at Ford Field.
Shane Williams (2020), Riley Bettich (2018), Tyler Humes (2010), Tyler Daniel (2009), Ryan Huebner (2002), John King (1992), Scott Mabrey (1992), Mark McKie (1992, 1991), Jason Cluff (1988, 1987, 1986), Dave Strejc (1988), Matt Cluff (1987, 1986, 1985), John Spear (1986), Gary Smith (1981, 1980) John Murphy (1979), Doug Smith (1978), and Rick McGrath (1974) all were guided to the state’s top individual level by Bittenbender.
For his accomplishments, Bittenbender was named Regional Coach of the Year 11 times, Michigan Wrestling Coach of the Year by the Coaches Association (2002) and National Coach of the Year twice, by the National Federation of State High School Associations (2002) and National High School Athletic Coaches Association (2010). His rightful spot in the Michigan Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame was claimed in 2010, and he was inducted into the National Coaches Association Hall of Fame the following year. In 2012, his home state honored Bittenbender with an induction into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Milligan University (Tenn.), where he wrestled four years, did the same in 2019.
“We went through three years of pulling teeth and hard work,” said Bittenbender, who took over at struggling Lakeshore in 1970. “Finally, we hit pay dirt. We got a kid to be state champion (in 1974), Ricky McGrath. This guy opened it up. After that, kids wanted to be Lakeshore wrestlers.”
But there were thousands of others that also laid bricks over the years to help build the program up to where it is today.
“There were a lot of kids that weren’t state champions here; there were a lot of kids that weren’t District champions or Regional champions or even conference champions,” Bittenbender said. “But they were here everyday, they were working everyday, they were part of this program and you’ve got to give those kids credit.”
Ryan Quinn takes over the program after serving as assistant coach.
“I’m incredibly blessed, grateful and humbled to be part of this school, to be taking over the reins of such a successful wrestling program,” Quinn said. “It is truly an honor to succeed Coach Bittenbender. He has made such a lasting impression on my life in such a short period of time. I know with confidence he has made lasting impacts on all who are involved in his as well. His fingerprints will forever remain on this school district and wrestling program.”
Bittenbender thanked his family, all the parents, volunteers and sponsors that supported the program over the last 52 years.
“It was a great place to live; it was a great place to coach. I’m lucky. It is a great community, my kids got a great education here, and it has been great to see kids go on to be good fathers and go to work every day,” he said.
“I want to thank my family over the years. If you’re going to be a wrestling coach’s wife, you’ve got to be something special. We’re going to spend a lot more time together.”
When Bittenbender was named 2010 National Coach of the Year, Nebraska’s Tom Osborne was the keynote speaker. Bittenbender recalled him saying: ‘If you want to know if you’re a good man, write down the 10 things you want the guy to say in your obituary. If he says eight of them, you’re a good man.”
“I hope I’m a good man,” Bittenbender said.
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@example.com with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Retiring Stevensville Lakeshore wrestling coach Bruce Bittenbender, right, embraces Zamuel Thompson after Thompson’s Individual Finals championship win last month at Ford Field. (Middle) Lakeshore’s Matt Cluff lifts Eaton Rapids’ Scott Bolin during their 1986 Class B championship match. (Top photo by HighSchoolSportsScene.com, middle photo courtesy of the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium.)