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."
Shayna Hruska ♦ Iron Mountain
Junior ♦ Wrestling
With an 8-2 decision win in the 106-pound final Saturday, Hruska became the first female champion at the annual Upper Peninsula Championships, and she then was selected the event’s “Outstanding Wrestler” for going 3-0 also with pins in her first two matches of the tournament. Those victories improved her record to 18-6 this season.
Hruska began wrestling in third grade and finished fourth at 97 pounds as a freshman at the 2021 Michigan Wrestling Association Girls Championships. She then finished second at her District to reach Regionals competing in the bracket with the boys last season. She entered last week’s U.P. Championships title coming off a runner-up finish at the Escanaba Elks Invitational on Jan. 7 and the championship at 106 at Kingsford’s Ray Mariucci Wrestling Invitational on Jan. 14.
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Jan. 19: Kayla Tafanelli, Warren Woods-Tower bowling - Report
Dec. 20: Brenden Paden, Riverview Gabriel Richard hockey - Report
Dec. 16: Tuff Scott, Holton bowling - Report
Dec. 9: Macey Fegan, Standish-Sterling basketball - Report
Dec. 2: Treyton Siegert, Gladwin football - Report
Nov. 24: Lily Witte, Dexter diving - Report
Nov. 17: Navea Gauthier, Shelby volleyball - Report
Nov. 10: Derek Huisman, Holland Christian soccer - Report
Nov. 3: Thomas Westphal, New Baltimore Anchor Bay cross country - Report
Oct. 27: Justin Wickey, Colon football - Report
Oct. 20: Owen DeMuth, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood tennis - Report
Oct. 13: Mia Melendez, Ann Arbor Greenhills golf - Report
Oct. 6: Shawn Foster, Grand Ledge football - Report
Sept. 30: Hannah Smith, Temperance Bedford swimming - Report
Sept. 22: Helen Sachs, Holland West Ottawa cross country - Report
Sept. 15: Nina Horning, Lake Orion volleyball - Report
Sept 8: Arturo Romero, Muskegon Oakridge soccer - Report
Sept. 1: Austin King, Midland Dow tennis - Report
Aug. 25: Olivia Hemmila, Troy Athens golf - Report
(Photos courtesy of the Iron Mountain High School athletic department.)