By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
Ben Modert’s road to three all-state wrestling seasons and two individual Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 4 Finals championships played out to a soundtrack of his own stomach rumblings and the clanging of silverware by those around him consuming everyday meals.
The Bronson standout blocked all that out to remain trim as a 103-pound freshman and sophomore, followed by a junior campaign at 112 pounds. It was just one of the many sacrifices Modert made to climb to the summit.
A sixth-place finish in the championships held at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 2017 propelled Modert into a sophomore season that netted 55 victories and a Finals crown at Ford Field. Last spring as a junior, he rattled off 52 victories en route to a championship at 112 pounds.
The hunger for a third title is certainly there, even though Modert made a decision to quell the physical cravings for more sustenance by bumping up to higher weight classes this year.
That’s not to say Modert believes the path will be any easier.
Wednesday’s Big 8 Conference dual match against Union City is a prime example. Though Bronson ended the night with a 36-30 victory, Modert experienced his first loss of the season. Fellow reigning Finals champion Brayton Mears, who won last year’s Division 4 title at 103 pounds as a freshman, edged Modert 2-1 in the 119-pound bout in one of the season’s early marquee matchups. Both grapplers entered the day undefeated.
“I decided since it’s my senior year to not cut much weight,” Modert, whose original plan for this season was to compete at 125 pounds, said before the year began and prior to settling on 119 pounds. “I just like to wrestle whoever and get the best competition. It’s more fun to me. I get more from losing than winning. It’s just better experience. It’s obviously upsetting to lose, but I’ll watch videos and want to see what I did wrong and still improve.
“I honestly like the target (on me) and people gunning for me. I like the competition like that. I know I have to keep my head in it still. Cutting weight makes it 10 times longer than what (the season) already is. Hopefully not cutting weight will help keep my motivation up.”
Bronson head coach Chad Butters has witnessed first-hand how Modert’s mindset has paid dividends.
“He has definitely matured on and off the mat,” Bronson head coach Chad Butters said of Modert. “One of the things I admire about Ben is he really does a good job of seeking out the best competition. There were times he could have ducked some competition.”
Based on the few losses he’s experienced over the past two seasons, Modert’s recent defeat might be the cool breeze across the embers that will ignite another historic run. A loss last season to Clinton’s A.J. Baxter, who Modert beat at the 2018 Finals, led to Modert finishing out the year undefeated.
“Ben approached me and said he wanted that match (against Baxter),” Butters said. “He’s driven, and he wants to challenge himself. He’s constantly pushing himself. That was a good thing for him. I think he learned just because he won a state championship in the past, nothing is guaranteed. You have to work for it, and it has to be earned.”
Modert is ahead of pace to break former Bronson great Hunter Machus’s career school wins record of 207 (2013). Entering the year with 160 victories and having accrued more than 20 so far this winter, that feat might be accomplished by February.
With no plans to compete in college, Modert’s soaking in all he can as his decorated career winds down.
“This will be my 12th year wrestling, and it can’t go on forever,” he said. “I think it’s a cool thing to be in the record books to begin with. We have banners up for state championships. I don’t like to be glorified, but I like the recognition.
“(Butters) is a great coach and Tony (Turner) is great, too. They’re working with you constantly and doing everything they can. They are very supportive. It’s a huge wrestling family we have behind us. It’s so supportive, and they’re awesome and always there. We always have a huge crowd there cheering, and that’s a big part of (our success).”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Bronson's Ben Modert locks up the Division 4 championship at 112 pounds at Ford Field last season. (Middle) Modert shows his chart after claiming the title. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
Dominic D’Ambrosio’s answer when asked at 5 years old if he wanted to start wrestling was probably a clue for what was to come.
“I remember when my dad asked me if I wanted to wrestle,” D’Ambrosio said. “I think I just said, ‘Sure.’”
It’s not that D’Ambrosio would be nonchalant or aloof when it came to wrestling. He’s quite the opposite, actually. The work he’s put in has him unbeaten at 43-0 as a senior, ranked among the top four at 138 pounds in Division 3, and threatening to become the Spartans’ first Individual Finals champion.
The clue was that D’Ambrosio was going to be calm and cool on the mat, and have a grounded view of the sport off it, which has also helped him reach those heights.
“When I was younger, I got an award for being a cool cucumber – the Cool as a Cucumber award,” he said. “When I lose, I just look at it as I can get better from it. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s serious, the work you put into it, but it’s not so serious. If you lose, you just want to get better. I just like to get the work done.”
To be fair, D’Ambrosio doesn’t do much losing.
He’s dropped just nine matches during his four-year career, compared to 159 wins, and a third of those losses came against Dundee four-time Finals champion Braeden Davis, who is now unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country at 125 pounds as a true freshman at Penn State.
D’Ambrosio was 14-0 as a freshman when COVID-19 ended the Spartans’ 2020-21 season short of the postseason. He placed third at the Finals as a sophomore, and fifth as a junior.
He has his eyes on the ultimate prize this year, and for a moment he allowed the thought to get him out of his even-keeled nature. But even that doesn’t last long.
“It would be pretty special,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for it. But, either way, I’m just going to go and leave it all out there.”
D’Ambrosio is the son of Imlay City coach Tony D’Ambrosio, which in some cases could create more pressure. But not this one. And a lot of that could be credited to Tony.
“We always tried to keep the pressure low and just have fun,” said Tony D’Ambrosio, who is in his 10th year at the helm in Imlay City. “We just focus on getting better. He’s always just wrestled. It’s just how he is. Dominic doesn’t even look at the brackets. He doesn’t find out who he’s wrestling until he shakes hands.”
What happens after they shake hands isn’t what one would expect from someone who could win that same Cool as a Cucumber award every year.
D’Ambrosio’s matches typically don’t last long. Of his 159 wins, 105 have come by pin, including all three of his wins at the 2023 Individual Finals. As a junior, he set the school pin record at 41. This season, 32 of his 43 wins have been by pinfall.
Just four of his matches have gone beyond the first period this season, and only two of those have gone the distance.
“This year, he’s really been turning it all on,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “He didn’t start pinning a lot until later on into middle school and high school. It’s just basic stuff, not anything fancy. He’s a nice kid, but when he’s on the mat, he’s going to turn you over.”
Dominic isn’t a thrower, and his pins aren’t the result of catching an opponent in anything fluky. He’s just meticulous, and able to take advantage of any opening he’s given.
“I’m (working on a half Nelson) 100 times, 200 times during the week, so I’ll be able to hit it during the weekend,” he said. “If I got somebody’s head, nobody is getting out of it. I can just flow really well into a pinning sequence.”
As he pins his way through the season, D’Ambrosio is racking up awards. He’s been named Most Valuable Wrestler at four tournaments bouncing between 138 and 144, and at one point found himself ranked No. 1 by Michigan Grappler at 138.
As you would expect, he hasn’t allowed that to get to his head, and as his father puts it, “the only ranking that matters is the podium.”
With District tournaments this week, D’Ambrosio now can focus 100 percent of his efforts on getting to the top of that podium. But don’t expect the pressure to mount in his house or on the mat.
“It would be special,” Tony D’Ambrosio said. “But, again, as long as he goes out there and just does what he does, and does his best – it’s kind of like the NCAAs, you have to have a good weekend. It doesn’t dictate who you are. It would be awesome, and it’s a great goal to have. It would be a great goal to accomplish and be the first (from Imlay City). But wherever he ends up, I’m going to be proud of what he’s done.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Imlay City’s Dominic D’Ambrosio, right, wrestles to a fifth-place finish at 132 pounds in Division 3 last season at Ford Field. (Middle) D’Ambrosio, right, takes to the mat during his early years in the sport. (Below) D’Ambrosio, right, works to pin an opponent. (Top photo by High School Sports Scene; other photos courtesy of the D’Ambrosio family.)