MHSA(Q&)A: Stevensville-Lakeshore wrestling coach Bruce Bittenbender

February 9, 2012

Bruce Bittenbender grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., in the heart of steel country, and worked part-time in a mill as a young adult. That helped land him in Michigan City, Ind., not long after graduating from Milligan College in Tennessee in 1969.

But Bittenbender wanted to teach and coach.

Bittenbender took a teaching job at South Haven that fall, and as an assistant coach helped that school's wrestling team to the MHSAA Class B championship. A year later the wrestling coaching job opened at Stevensville Lakeshore. He says now that he was too young for the job, but Bittenbender applied and was hired. The program was struggling at that point -- but not for much longer.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations' record book, Bittenbender trailed only Rex Peckinpaugh of New Castle, Ind., in career dual coaching wins heading into this season (796-780). Bittenbender won his 800th match on Jan. 14 -- and has his team just two more victories from MHSAA Finals weekend Feb. 24-25 in Battle Creek.

Bittenbender retired from teaching two years ago after 35 teaching biology and seven more physical education. At 64, he still gets on the mat with his wrestlers from time to time, although perhaps not as much as he once did. But countless wrestlers -- including those who won a combined 20 individual championships -- have benefited from his instruction.

His coaching tree includes current Rockford coach Brian Richardson and former Lowell coach Dave Strejc, who led teams to MHSAA Division 2 championships in 2002 and 2004. Bittenbender was named National Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2002 and again by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association in 2010. He is a member of the Michigan Wrestling Association Hall of Fame, and he will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame this spring.

Stevensville Lakeshore is ranked No. 7 in Division 2. His team won its District on Tuesday, downing St. Joseph 35-34 with a decision win in the final match.

What keeps you coming back for another season?

Every year, when you think you've seen it all, something else comes up. When I was in middle school, it was junior high school back then, I was on the edge. The coach (Jim McIntyre, who went on to coach at Kutztown University) grabbed me on the back of the neck and said, "What are you doing?" I was hanging out with kids of questionable character, and he said, "You need to come out for wrestling." I still go back and play golf with that guy once in a while. ... I came from a big family. We didn't have much. I have empathy for the kids that were kicked around, misdirected. Somebody took time out for me. I felt maybe I could kick some of that back.

After so many wins, do you still enjoy all of them the same?

I tell ya, last night I certainly enjoyed the win. It was just like I was 23 again. Yeah, I enjoy it. It's addictive. That's what you're out there for.

The NFHS changed its wrestling weight classes this season, but Michigan chose to stay with its current lineup. What is your thought on that switch?

I think it's going to switch back. It makes no sense to me. The average kid graduating from high school is 5-(foot-)9, 155 pounds. Why add a weight class at the top where you have to compete for kids with football and basketball. … Our sport has prided itself on giving the little guy a chance. ... He can be a state champ in wrestling.

Your teams have finished MHSAA Finals runner-up twice. How much would you like to win that first championship?

I would love to. That's the ultimate goal. We've been so close. We were up three points in '94, and got pinned at heavyweight (to lose 28-25 to Fowlerville). In '86 we broke the record for individual number of points scored, but Eaton Rapids broke it too. We were that close.

I'm assuming you're not going to stop coaching any time soon.

Being around people and the community, and working with kids, it keeps you young. Keeps you in shape, keeps you motivated. I think that's one of the reasons. Now that I'm not teaching, my wife and I are able to travel quite a bit in the fall and summer. I think that's basically a motivator, just being around people.

What do you tell, or would you tell, young coaches who are just getting started in high school wrestling?

I tell them to be careful the first few years. It's different today. … I tell coaches you need to set up standards, discipline, goals and objectives, and go by those. You try to accommodate some of these kids, and this and that, but you can go only so far. You’ve gotta stick to the rules and let the cards fall where they are. If you don't, you'll have problems down the line.

And I think communicating with people, making friends, getting out there and strumming up support for the program is important too. I've had the opportunity to speak to the Lions Club, various civic organizations, at hospitals. You have to try to make yourself available. People have to learn to put their trust in you."

Bragging Rights for Both as Multi-Sport Sage Twins Shine at Ford Field

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

March 10, 2023

SOUTHGATE – The question of “Which child is your favorite?” is impossible for any parent to answer, but Shawn Sage has an additional question that’s impossible to answer regarding his son Jackson and daughter Brooklyn.

Greater DetroitThat question is, “Who would win a wrestling match between the two?”

“They are both raising their hands right now smiling about it,” Shawn Sage said with a laugh during a phone conversation.

It’s a good-natured question anybody can pose to Shawn Sage, given his son and daughter are not only twins by birth, but in wrestling achievements as sophomores at Southgate Anderson.

Last weekend at Ford Field, Jackson Sage competed in his second Individual Finals, where he finished fourth in Division 2 in the 157-pound weight class.

It was an improvement from last year’s event, when he qualified as a freshman but didn’t place.

“I was more used to it,” Jackson Sage said. “Last year was a different experience being at Ford Field the first time.”

Brooklyn Sage qualified for the Individual Finals this season as well, where she finished sixth in the Girls Division 155-pound weight class.

The winter was busy for both, but especially for Brooklyn. In addition to competing in wrestling, she was also a member of the school’s competitive cheer team.

“I knew that it would be a commitment,” she said. “But I was up for it. I was at the school for about 14 hours a day, but it was worth it at the end.”

Jackson and Brooklyn are each three-sport athletes. Jackson is the quarterback on the football team in the fall and a member of the track team (he competes in 300 hurdles and two relays) in the spring, while Brooklyn plays softball.

But it’s wrestling where the two share their greatest bond athletically.

Jackson started getting involved in the sport when was around elementary school age, and Brooklyn would tag along to practices.

Along the way, she became intrigued enough to try wrestling herself.

“I liked being able to know that I could defend myself and take care of myself in different ways,” she said. “To be able to stand up for myself.”

Brooklyn said she stopped wrestling competitively around sixth grade because there weren’t opportunities for girls to compete only against each other, but that changed when a girls-only division was added to the MHSAA Tournament with the 2021-22 season.

With both able to compete in high school, at-home workouts intensified. The two regularly train against each other on a mat in their basement, where technique is honed and toughness is sharpened.

“She pushes me a lot,” Jackson said.

Both also learn from each other’s experiences.

“I feel like watching him made me more motivated to do it,” Brooklyn said. “He’s taught me a lot of technique that I wouldn’t have known from his past experiences and coach.”

Added Jackson: “I’ve learned from her matches.”

This week has actually presented a rarity for both in that they’ve had time off.

With wrestling ending and spring sports not officially opening practice until Monday, the two haven’t had practices and competitions.

That’ll change next week when they go their separate ways with Jackson to track practice and Brooklyn joining the softball squad, and they’ll focus on those sports for the rest of the school year.

But with two more years of eligibility left and all-state finishes in wrestling already, the sky is the limit for the next two years in that sport for both.

With that in mind, the questions to Dad about who would win a match are likely only getting started.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTO Southgate Anderson twins Brooklyn, left, and Jackson Sage both placed at this season’s Wrestling Individual Finals. (Photo courtesy of the Sage family.)