By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
MOUNT PLEASANT – Lowell needed 13 matches Saturday to clinch another of what has become an annual MHSAA Finals back-and-forth with rival St. Johns.
Lowell added a sixth MHSAA title to a body of work already ranking it among the most successful wrestling programs in state history, outlasting the Redwings 37-22 despite the teams being deadlocked with three matches remaining.
Hall’s pin at 125 pounds was sandwiched between a pin by junior Sam Russell at 119 and a decision by freshman Avry Mutschler at 130 that together gave the top-ranked Red Arrows the final 15 points of the day – literally – as the back-and-forth nature of the tussle caused it to finish last of the four Finals and multiple matches after two had concluded.
“It’s really been us multiple years going back and forth at it. It’s tough. It’s not going to be easy; everyone knows that,” Hall said. “We’ve had good times, we’ve had bad times with St. Johns. To be honest, it’s just going after it, trying to go for the win. Rivalry wins are the best wins.”
Lowell finished 22-3 and entered the weekend the top seed to go with its top regular-season ranking. St. Johns (28-5) was ranked third heading into the postseason but seeded second this weekend.
The Redwings opened a 7-0 lead after two matches, and the Red Arrows tied the score with two straight wins. St. Johns then earned a decision, and Lowell tied it again with a decision – but in doing so started a 15-0 run keyed by some deft maneuvering at the heavier weights by coach R.J. Boudro.
Junior Eli Boulton has wrestled at 215 pounds but got in at the 189-pound match and came away with a pin. After a decision win by senior Logan Blough at 215, senior Max Dean moved up two weights to 285 – giving up about 100 pounds but beating 5-4 St. Johns senior Jake Gnegy, a likely contender at next weekend’s Individual Finals.
Dean wrestled heavyweight for the first time this season in Friday’s Quarterfinal win over Sturgis.
“I like challenges. Coach came to me with the idea and I was all about it, and I was just really excited and glad I could get it done for my teammates,” Dean said. “Credit (Gnegy), he was really strong. I knew I had to wrestle the match a certain way and didn’t want to be under him or anything like that. I thought it would be a lot of fun.”
But despite Lowell’s 22-10 lead at that point, it wasn’t the end.
St. Johns battled back with back-to-back pins by sophomore Brendan Zelenka and junior Emilio Sanchez at 103 and 112, respectively, to tie the score again – setting up the closing run by Russell, Hall and Mutschler.
All five of Lowell's seniors won their matches in the Final as the Red Arrows won nine of 14 matches total.
“Everybody just expects us to do this. What no one knows is how hard these kids work and how hard it is to win a state title with the expectations that we have,” Boudro said. “Our seniors, every senior did what they were expected to do. It was just an awesome win. We wrestled above expectations, I felt like.”
The same could’ve been said for the Redwings, perhaps, for a couple of reasons. St. Johns missed Finals weekend completely last season, losing to eventual Division 2 runner-up Eaton Rapids in the Regional Final.
The Redwings had to beat both No. 7 Eaton Rapids and No. 2 DeWitt to reach CMU this weekend – and nearly had enough to finish with a fifth championship in seven seasons.
“One thing that this team has not done all year, is we haven’t given up. Things may not go our way, but it doesn’t discourage us. We keep battling hard, we keep wrestling tough,” St. Johns coach Derek Phillips said. “The way last season ended left a sour taste, so we all wanted to wrestle tough and get back here. But we didn’t talk about it much this year. This year we just focused on getting better and having fun. … We didn’t win, but I thought we had a successful season where the guys got better, had fun, and the team, we grew.”
Lowell cruised to a 52-18 win over Sturgis in its Quarterfinal on Friday, while St. Johns advanced with a 49-23 win over Dearborn Heights Annapolis. The Redwings then beat third-seeded Gaylord in a Semifinal, 55-11, while Lowell outlasted fourth-seeded Goodrich 35-27.
Hall, Max Dean, Mutschler, junior Bryce Dempsey and senior Danny Kruse all won all three of their matches on the weekend for Lowell. Zelenka, junior Bret Fedewa and senior Ian Parker won all three of their matches for the Redwings – Parker winning the most intriguing individual matchup of the Final, 3-0 over Lowell senior Zeth Dean. Both are reigning individual champions and will be in the 140 bracket next weekend.
The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTO: Lowell and St. Johns met in the Division 2 Final for the fourth time in five seasons Saturday. (Click to see more at 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.”
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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.)