By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
LOWELL – Wrestling coach R.J. Boudro gets a chuckle every time he hears other people talk about Lowell High School athletes.
“Those kids are huge. What are they feeding those kids?”
It’s a comment based on little validity.
“It’s a myth that we feed our kids certain things, that they are big farm boys,” Boudro said. “What I think gets lost is people think Lowell is good every year, and I think that’s true in our football program, too.
“They think we’re good because of where we eat and what we’re feeding them, but we had seven of our 11 guys on the field for our football team at 170 pounds or below. They just work hard.”
Work ethic and toughness are staples among Lowell wrestlers. Those qualities have catapulted the Red Arrows into one of the premier programs in the state over the last two decades.
“They think Lowell is good because we’re Lowell, and we have to fight that,” Boudro said. “You can’t just walk in and be good because you put on a Lowell singlet. It takes a lot of work.”
The Red Arrows’ success is unprecedented.
They have captured six MHSAA Division 2 titles in program history, including the last three in a row. The Red Arrows have wrestled in 12 of the last 18 Division 2 championship matches, first finishing runner-up in 1999 and claiming their first title in 2002.
Lowell has made five straight Finals appearances, and after back-to-back losses to another perennial powerhouse, St. Johns, in 2012 and 2013, broke through in 2014 with a narrow 35-34 Finals win over the then four-time reigning MHSAA champion.
The Red Arrows defeated Eaton Rapids in the 2015 championship match, and St. Johns again last season. Lowell and St. Johns have met four times in the Finals over the last five years.
“It’s a huge challenge trying to defend a state title, and we’ve done that twice now,” Boudro said. “I don’t think it gets any easier, and it gets harder each year. There a lot of people that would like to see Lowell lose. I don’t think we’re a disliked program, but when you’re the guys at the top everyone is gunning for you.”
Lowell began this season as the top-ranked team in Division 2, but a new set of challenges await as it makes a bid for four consecutive championships.
The Red Arrows boast 51 on this year’s team; however, they graduated five all-state wrestlers and do not have any returning Individual Finals champions in the fold.
“This is new territory for us because that hasn’t happened since I’ve been here,” said Boudro, who is in his third season as head coach after previously serving as an assistant. “Usually we always have someone to look to who won a state title, and I could count on guys going out and getting six points almost every dual meet.
“We don’t necessarily have that this year, and we’re really young. We have a lot of freshmen we’re counting on and a lot of sophomores and juniors. The senior class isn’t big, but every junior and senior has been to the state finals three times and won.”
Lowell will rely on the strength of five returning all-state wrestlers to lead the way. They include seniors Sam Russell (145), Bryce Dempsey (152/160) and Eli Boulton (215), junior David Kruse (189) and sophomore Avry Mutschler (140).
Dempsey, who placed sixth at the Individual Finals a year ago, believes the Red Arrows can be just as good this year.
“I think we’re going to be better this year, actually,” he said. “We have a lot of new lightweights, and I’m not worried about them being freshmen because we have great leadership on the team and they’re all adjusting really well.
“We lost some hard-hitting seniors, but other guys have made progress in developing their abilities. I’m confident in our ability to get to the team state finals again this year.”
Kruse, the starting quarterback on the one-loss football team, also has high hopes.
“I think we have a good team, and we had some big losses, but I think (we) can fill those spots because we have a lot of guys coming up big,” he said. “I think we’ll be all right.”
The longstanding tradition of excellence at Lowell is something coaches and wrestlers take immense pride in.
Boudro said it begins with the support of the community.
“We have a community that gets it and stands behind us,” he said. “We have businesses in this town and people in this town who really come together to help put together an awesome program, athletics in general.
“We have a ton of support, and I think we have guys who realize they are wrestling for more than themselves. They are wrestling for the community, the people before them and the team now.”
Kruse began wrestling in Lowell’s youth program when he was 10, and has seen how the community has rallied around the program.
“I take a lot of pride in being a Lowell wrestler and being a part of a special team and community,” he said. “Our coaches teach us great things, and we have support from our community.”
Dempsey moved to Lowell last year. He was impressed by the values the coaches instilled.
“I love everything the team stands for,” Dempsey said. “It’s not wins and losses. It’s how we win or lose. We have a motto of ‘Never Yield’ and we follow that through practices and competitions.
“Everyone is there to support each other, and everyone is putting in the same amount of work you’re putting in and everyone is working for the same goal. We’re all equally passionate in achieving that goal.”
While the Red Arrows have enjoyed past successes, the future looks just as bright.
The youth program continues to see record growth with 170 wrestlers registered this year.
“It is insane, and it’s the most it’s ever been,” Boudro said. “I think of what we’ve done the last 20 years, and now I feel like it’s the strongest it has ever been. It’s pretty cool and exciting for our future.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years, served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM, and currently is a reporter for WOODTV. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lowell’s Sam Russell celebrates his win during last season’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Eli Boulton (left) wrestles to victory at 189 pounds last winter at Rose Arena. (Click to see more from 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.”
2023 Made In Michigan
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
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.)