By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
AUBURN HILLS – Logan Massa threw three fingers in the air, and then did a backflip to near perfection on the floor of The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The three fingers were a symbol of the third championship he just won at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals on Saturday.
The flip was to show the crowd just how athletic this University of Michigan-bound wrestler is, and why he is considered by many as the best wrestler in the state at any weight in any division.
Massa pinned Manuel Roldan of Melvindale in four minutes, 41 seconds in their 171-pound championship match in Division 2. That now makes seven MHSAA Finals titles in the Massa family, as older brother Taylor Massa was a four-time champion and now wrestles at Michigan.
Logan said Taylor played a big part in his success.
“It is awesome to have a big brother like Taylor,” Massa said. “He is the best to have. He was a four-time undefeated state champ, and he knows what it’s like to be here. Whenever I was down on myself in the practice room, he would always help me get through it.”
What also helped Logan Massa get through the past three title runs was a tough loss in the Finals to Ada Forest Hills Eastern’s Tim Lambert when Massa was a freshman.
“I came here my freshman year and fell a little short, so I had to pick it up in the practice room,” Massa said. “That helped me get three more. (Lambert) was the best wrestler you could wrestle in the state that year, and I was only a freshman, so that could only help me get better.”
Champion: Cameron Mahlich, Ionia, Soph. (39-2)
Decision, 4-3, over Trevor Giallombardo, Gaylord, Jr. (27-3)
Mahlich jumped into his coach’s arms, then sprinted to the stands after winning the 103-pound title with a tight 4-3 win.
Mahlich wanted to pay respect to his father, Greg Mahlich, who has played a big part in his career to this point.
“He knew whatever happened, he would be happy with me because I was in a state championship match,” Mahlich said. “All throughout MYWAY (Michigan's Youth Wrestling Association), it's been a goal to see me win it here, so he was extremely happy.”
And Mahlich's growth not only happened with his wrestling, but also his stature.
“Last year I was a small 103-pounder, and I ended up taking eighth,” Mahlich said. “Last year I Alpha (weighed in) at 96 pounds, so I was pretty small.”
Champion: Dominic LaJoie, Gaylord, Soph. (37-2)
Decision, 14-10, over Austin Franco, Stevensville-Lakeshore, Fr. (49-1)
LaJoie knew his opponent in their 112-pound final – highly-touted freshman Franco, who came into the Finals with a perfect 49-0 record.
But LaJoie had something Franco wanted, an MHSAA title won last year at 103 pounds. And that experience helped him beat the talented freshman 14-10 in the title match at 112.
“I knew I had more experience, and he's a freshman now knowing what to expect,” Lajoie said. “I just took it to him.
“Winning this second one was definitely harder, because there is more pressure on you. But you have to overcome that.”
Champion: Lucas Hall, Lowell, Jr. (39-1)
Major decision, 14-0, over Noah Schoenherr Bay City Western, Soph. (51-6)
Lowell junior Lucas Hall was another wrestler with a bull's eye on his back, after winning a title at 112 pounds last year.
But Hall didn't let that get in the way.
“Last year's (championship) panned out with a pin,” Hall said. “I went into this match giving him a lot of credit. I just wrestled my match. I don't try and think about (being a returning champion), I just try and keep a clear mind and wrestle. I wrestle each match as its own, and move on to the next one.”
Champion: Ian Parker, St. Johns, Jr. (39-2)
Decision, 7-1, over Jacob Busing, Byron Center, Sr. (41-5)
Parker knows how to work hard. He also knows what winning is about.
As a wrestler for St. Johns, Parker has seen many teammates win MHSAA Finals titles, and has been on teams that have won as well.
Now he has an individual championship of his own, beating Byron Center's Jacob Busing 7-1 in the 125-pound title match.
“This feels amazing, there is nothing like it,” Parker said. “It feels great because you work so hard, and when it all comes through, it feels great.
“Working with guys on my team, learning what they know and working hard with them, that helped me today. Many have experienced this, and know what to do, and that helped me.”
Champion: Zeth Dean, Lowell, Jr. (38-3)
Decision, 8-3, over Luke Raczkowski, Parma Western, Soph. (52-2)
Zeth Dean watched his cousins Gabe and Max Dean win MHSAA championships for Lowell, and now adds his own to the Dean family legacy.
“This is exciting,” Zeth Dean said. “Being at a place like Lowell, you are born and raised watching kids win state titles, and that's all you want to do. That's your only goal. That's why you go to practice when you are in second and third grade, is to win a state championship.”
Dean came close as a freshman, taking second at 112. Last year he wrestled with an injured knee and took fifth.
Champion: Jaedin Sklapsky, Eaton Rapids, Sr. (56-2)
Decision, 7-4, over Chase Veydt, Parma Western, Jr. (46-8)
Sklapsky knows how it is to be close to a title but to just miss out.
Last year he was a runner-up at the Individual Finals, and last week his Eaton Rapids teammates took second to Lowell in the Division 2 Team Final.
He finally has a championship.
“Down in Battle Creek we all went for bonus points, but at individual coach tells us to just get your hand raised,” Sklapsky said. “Do whatever you can to get your hand raised.”
Sklapsky had to be a little worried, as Veydt came into their match off of one of the biggest upsets in the tournament, beating Clio's Mason Smith, a two-time reigning champ, in the Quarterfinals on Friday.
“I had confidence I could beat everybody,” Sklapsky said.
Champion: Austin Thompson, Marysville, Sr. (50-1)
Decision, 7-5, over Austin Melton, Dewitt, Jr. (41-5)
It was a battle of returning champions at 140 pounds. Thompson was superior technically on this day, beating Melton 7-5 in a hard-fought contest.
“I knew it was going to be a battle,” Thompson said. “He is a tough wrestler. I wrestled him at the Grappler Fall Classic and beat him 10-8. So I knew it was going to be a battle, two good kids going at it. I knew what I had to do to get the job done.”
Champion: Chris Schoenherr, Bay City Western, Sr. (58-2)
Decision, 3-1, over Brandon Garcia, Riverview, Jr. (55-4).
After watching his younger brother lose in the Finals earlier Saturday evening, Chris Schoenherr went out and won the family a championship.
“We knew my brother was going in wrestling a really tough kid, and I know Noah always does his best,” Chris Schoenherr said. “But I knew I couldn't dwell too much on his match. As soon as I was done watching his match, I made sure I was ready mentally for mine.”
Champion: Connor Myers, St. Joseph, Sr. (30-0)
Decision, 7-4, over Khannor Kaercher, Warren Lincoln, Sr. (52-2)
At the start of the year, Myers wasn't in wrestling shape.
That's because he got a late start to his season after suffering a broken right hand during football in the fall.
But Myers got in wrestling shape during the dog days of the wrestling season in January and capped of his senior campaign with an undefeated record and MHSAA title.
“It was hard coming back into the season. I was out of shape,” Myers said. “I started out at 160, but those guys were just too big, then I finally made 152 and got in shape to do this.”
Champion: Logan Ritchie, New Boston Huron, Sr. (58-1)
Technical fall, 5:54, over Jaxon Smith, Byron Center, Sr. (43-6)
Ritchie made his second MHSAA title run look easy.
In his four matches at The Palace this weekend, he won two by major decision and two by technical fall.
“Last year I came into this tournament with a goal to win it, and this year I came in with a goal to dominate,” Ritchie said. “I definitely felt more pressure this year, but I knew I could do it.”
Champion: Ty Wildmo, St. Johns, Sr. (40-3)
Decision, 1-0, over Tristan Gregory, Gaylord, Sr. (38-4)
Wildmo had the clock and a bad right ankle working against him in his 189-championship match.
But he dug down deep enough to beat Gregory with an escape with one second left.
“That's exactly what I was thinking heading into this match; wrestle six minutes,” Wildmo said. “I heard my ankle pop with about 30 seconds left, but I kept wrestling and working. Three two-minute goes.”
Champion: Josh Colegrove, Lowell, Sr. (40-0)
Fall, 1:35, over Clayton Higelmire, Eaton Rapids, Jr. (45-7)
Colegrove was just as impressive winning his second title as he was winning his first last year.
And the Lowell senior also was just as humble and grateful.
“This feels great, to come back my senior year and win,” Colegrove said. “Being at Lowell has been really good to me. If I wasn't at Lowell I wouldn't have all the great workout partners I do that helped me get here. This has been a really great place for me, and I love it.”
Champion: Dallas Recker, Three Rivers, Sr. (50-2)
Fall, 2:45, over Isaiah Espinoza, Adrian, Jr. (18-7)
Last year Dallas Recker fell just minutes short of qualifying for the Finals, losing in the 'Blood Round' at Regionals.
He made the most of his first trip to The Palace this year, pinning his way to a title.
“This feels pretty good,” Recker said. “I never expected to pin my way through the tournament. But I am quite happy that I did.”
PHOTO: St. Johns’ Logan Massa works toward a pin in his Division 2 championship match at 171 pounds. (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.)