By Greg Chrapek
Special to Second Half
BATTLE CREEK – To say every point was worth its weight in gold would not be much of an overstatement for Lowell Red Arrows during its MHSAA Division 2 Team Final against four-time defending champion St. Johns on Saturday.
In a dual that ended in a 34-34 deadlock, the Red Arrows ended up with the championship trophy as they won the dual on the fifth criteria – or tie-breaker – total six-point wins.
The victory gave Lowell its first MHSAA Finals team title since 2009 and sent veteran coach Dave Dean out with the second title during his tenure.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Dean, who earlier this season accepted the position as head of the Olympic Development Program at Cornell University. “Right now I’m just feeling so happy for my kids and staff. They worked so hard for this. I might think about what it means to me later, but right now I’m so happy for the kids.”
The phrase `total team effort’ can sometimes be overused. But in the case of Lowell it was truly the deciding factor.
The final match was at 215 pounds, and Lowell senior Garrett Stehley won by disqualification. Stehley needed a six-point win to tie the dual and create a situation where the winner came down to criteria.
“I just went out there to wrestle,” Stehley said. “I knew if I just go out there and wrestle and not think about a pin or anything that something would open up.”
Stehley kept the pressure on the entire match, and after a succession of stalling warnings on his opponent, won the six-point disqualification.
For Stehley and the other Lowell seniors, the MHSAA title ended three years of frustration against their rivals from down the road on M-21. St. Johns had ended Lowell’s seasons the past three years, including the last two in MHSAA Finals.
“We’ve been here every year, and it has come down to us and St. Johns,” Stehley said. “We knew what we had to do. Everybody knew what they had to do.”
What the Red Arrows needed more than anything was to win as many points as possible while giving up as few as possible in matches they lost.
“It was a point here and a point there, and it all added up,” Dean said. “In the end everybody contributed. Every match was big. (Dan) Kruse not getting pinned against Zac Hall was big. Everybody stepped up.”
Dean’s son, sophomore Max Dean, also did his part. Going up junior Angus Arthur, a returning MHSAA individual champion, Max Dean gave up only three team points as he dropped an 8-6 decision.
“I just wanted to give (Arthur) the worst six minutes of his life,” Max Dean said. “I knew the pressure was on. This (team title) means everything. This is what we’ve been working for.”
Both teams won seven matches during the dual that went back and forth from beginning to end. The deciding factor was six-point wins (earned by pins or disqualification), and Lowell had four while St. Johns recorded three.
Lucas Hall (103 pounds), Jordan Hall (135) and Kanon Dean (171) earned pins while Stehley earned the disqualification.
St. Johns received pins from Ian Parker (112), Drew Wixson (152) and Logan Massa (160).
“I feel sad for the guys, but hats off to Lowell,” St. Johns coach Derek Phillips said. “They wrestled a great match. Our guys have a lot to be proud of. They were the ones who put in all the blood, sweat and tears. At the end of the day we are still second in the state.”
St. Johns had crucial wins of its own. The Redwings grabbed the early momentum when Ty Wildmo won an 8-4 decision against Josh Colegrove in the first match of the dual at 285 pounds.
The two teams traded pins in the next two matches with Lucas Hall winning at 103 pounds for Lowell and Ian Parker winning at 112 for St. Johns.
At 119 pounds, Zeth Dean, brother of Kanon and Max’s cousin, won a major decision putting Lowell up 10-9. The Red Arrows then methodically added to the lead with decisions from seniors Derek Krajewski (125) and Bailey Jack (130).
For those seniors, the win over St. Johns was extra sweet.
“I can’t describe this feeling,” Jack said. “It’s surreal. It’s better then winning individual state last year. Winning individual state is nothing compared to this.”
Jordan Hall’s pin at 135 put Lowell up 22-9, but the lead was short-lived as St. Johns came roaring back. Senior Zac Hall, a three-time individual champion who will be looking to win a fourth straight next weekend, won by technical fall at 140 pounds. Mark Bozzo added a technical fall at 145 pounds to trim the Lowell lead to 22-19.
St. Johns then surged ahead when Drew Wixson (152) and Logan Massa (160) came through with pins giving the Redwings a 31-22 lead.
With their backs against the wall, Kanon Dean came through with his pin at 171 to bring the Red Arrows to within three points at 31-28.
Arthur followed with his decision against Max Dean at 189, putting St. Johns up by three points. That set the stage for Stehley coming through with the deciding final six points.
“We were on a mission,” Stehley said. “We want to send the seniors out with a win and we wanted to send Coach Dean out on top.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Lowell wrestlers celebrate their first MHSAA team championship since 2009. (Middle) A Lowell wrestler focuses on his St. Johns opponent during Saturday’s match. (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.)