By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – Gabe Bennett made himself take a few deep breaths at the end of Saturday morning, then had a long talk with his dad, which helped.
The New Lothrop senior has won a lot during his high school career, and placed at the MHSAA Individual Finals the last two seasons. But Saturday morning, although the Hornets moved on from their Division 4 Semifinal, Bennett lost his match – falling to 0-4 for his career for the final two rounds of team competition.
The afternoon’s championship match against Hudson would provide one last opportunity to help the Hornets with a title on the line.
“If you win all the time, you don’t learn a whole lot. If you lose, that’s where you’re able to go back and learn from what you did and why you lost,” Bennett said. “I’ve taken all those times that I’ve lost, and I’ve learned something new – a new move to counter that, or to make my shots better, or whatever I needed to do to make myself better.
“Coming into this (Final) match, being a senior, this was my last one. (I thought) let’s go out with a bang. I did it.”
Bennett’s one-point decision win at 130 pounds got the Hornets even after an early deficit and contributed to what turned into a 38-24 victory and title repeat for reigning champion New Lothrop (29-1), the top-seeded team in Division 4 entering the weekend.
That favorite status was part of how this weekend’s narrative differed from in 2014, when the Hornets came back over the final three weights to upset the then top-seeded Tigers, who had won a record five straight MHSAA team titles.
Saturday’s win was less dramatic – New Lothrop clinched with two weights to wrestle. But this season as a whole was impressive in other respects – notably in how the Hornets dominated after graduating two individual champions who carried the load a year ago.
Bennett was one of four Hornets who won in Saturday’s championship match after falling in the Final a year ago. Junior Cole Hersch won by pin at 125 pounds to put the Hornets on the scoreboard, and Bennett’s 7-6 decision in the next bout evened the match score at 9-9. Sophomore Erik Birchmeier won by decision at 160 to give the Hornets a nine-point lead with six bouts left, and senior heavyweight David Robertson clinched the championship with a pin.
“Last year it felt like we had to get it. We had that good group of seniors that had a chance the three years before that. … That was like their time,” New Lothrop coach Jeff Campbell said. “Last year felt like more pressure. This year, I don’t want to say I surprised, but I was just really excited and proud of our leadership and the way the guys stepped in and filled in after the amazing leaders we had last year graduated.”
“(Bennett had) lost heart-breakers. … So to have him be the one who really got momentum going for us is pretty special.”
Junior Steven Garza II earned a key major decision at 140 pounds to follow Bennett and give New Lothrop a lead it would’ve give back. Senior Trevor Copes followed Garza with a pin to extend the lead to 19-9 halfway through the match.
Junior Caleb Symons was awarded a void at 215 pounds, and freshman Tommy Malloy followed Robertson’s clincher with a major decision at 103.
Although Hudson (23-6) did fall in the Final for the second straight season, it made its seventh straight championship match despite entering the weekend seeded third. The Tigers edged second-seeded Decatur 39-33 in the morning’s Semifinal and climbed within a point of New Lothrop with four bouts remaining.
Senior Tyler Roberts and junior Kyle Johnson won by pins in the championship match for Hudson. Seniors Roddy Hamdan and Mitch Ely and sophomores Tylor Grames and Zak Lopinski won by decisions.
“We were in a position a couple of spots where maybe we could make a legitimate run at it. But they’re pretty deep up top,” Hudson coach Scott Marry said. “I’m never going to fault my kids for their efforts. They gave everybody on the team, everybody in the community, their coaches, everything they’ve got, and that’s all I can ask.
“They goal is to win it, but sometimes certain things are out of your control. That was a very good team that beat us.”
PHOTO: (Top) New Lothrop’s Cole Hersch (right) works toward a pin in his 130-pound match Saturday afternoon. (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.)