By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Before every match this season, coach Todd Hesson has reminded his Niles wrestlers of the opportunities before them.
Calling every face-off a chance to make history has been more than just encouragement. This season is looking good to go down as the best in the Vikings’ long history.
Niles has won a school-record 29 matches, with just one loss. Last weekend, for the first time, the Vikings repeated as Berrien County Invitational champions. They wrestle in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference tournament Saturday, and next week will attempt to win their District for the second straight season – which also would be a first.
“All of these kids have stuck together,” said Hesson, who was promoted to varsity coach in 2007-08. “When these seniors started, they took a beating. But we haven’t changed the competition. They've just weathered the storm.”
“We had 20 (wins) exactly, 20-16 (when they were freshmen). It was not a pretty record. But we saw a big jump (from them) as sophomores.”
And the rest, literally, is history.
The list of teams Niles has beaten this winter compares well with the best slates in the state – Division 1 No. 10 Battle Creek Lakeview, Division 2 No. 2 Lowell, No. 4 Allegan and formerly-ranked Mason, and Division 3 No. 3 Whitehall and No. 9 Saginaw Swan Valley. The lone loss came to Shelby, the No. 5 team in Division 3, 31-29.
Four seniors anchor the Niles lineup, including three MHSAA Finals qualifiers from last season. Total, four Vikings made the individual Finals a year ago – seniors Ryan Casey, Fritzel Findeisen and Casey Burandt and sophomore Brendon Meek.
Casey is 39-0 this season at 189 pounds and has tied the school career record with 76 pins. He’s ranked fourth in Division 2 at his weight class, with Burandt fourth at 145 pounds despite missing significant time with a broken hand and Findeisen sixth at 152. Senior Derek Scott is ranked seventh at 285 pounds and senior Nick Zimmerman is sixth at 119.
“They’re a tough group of kids. They work hard,” Hesson said. “Quite honestly, and I say it all the time, but I’m blessed with a good group of kids. They do what you ask.”
All four classes contribute to the Vikings' line-up, and the team bond grew strong over the summer during a week-long camp hosted by former University of Wisconsin All-American Jeff Jordan. Niles wrestlers entered Jordan’s Ohio facility and left only for morning runs and meals, even sleeping on the mats at night – although Hesson “cheated” a few times by sleeping in the team van.
Some of his wrestlers may not have been too excited about the camp at the time, but understand its worth after what they've accomplished this season. Hesson said they’ll return this summer.
And by then, the Vikings could surely be able to boast that this was their best season ever.
Banners hang in Niles wrestling room highlighting the team’s District and Regional championships. The Regional banner lists only two seasons – 1935 and 1960. Niles has never advanced to MHSAA Team Finals weekend since the team championship format was added in 1988.
An obstacle often has been powerful Stevensville Lakeshore, a Division 2 Quarterfinalist the last five seasons. But Niles, after beating Lakeshore by 7.5 points to win the 2012 Berrien County Invitational, repeated last weekend by finishing 62 points ahead of the field.
Even as Hesson admits his program still has a ways to go to join Lakeshore as a regular southwestern Michigan power, he likes to think the Vikings are headed that way. The next month could tell more of how far they've come.
“ We've had some pretty good teams going all the way back to my first year. But Lakeshore had better teams; they were stacked,” Hesson said. “Not to take away anything from them, but they made us better … another notch or two or three.”
PHOTO: Niles' Fritzel Findeisen (in white) wrestles during last season's MHSAA Division 2 Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (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.)