By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A total of 23 reigning champions will return to this weekend’s MHSAA Individual Finals, and all 56 who will be crowned will be celebrated by their schools and communities.
But as is often true on this biggest stage, the crowd’s focus will turn nearly in full when a pair of contenders take to the mats one last time at the high school level.
Dundee’s Brandon Whitman and Lake Fenton’s Jarrett Trombley will be among hundreds of hopefuls at Ford Field for the start of the two-day competition Friday. They also are the only two this season who can join 22 others as four-time Finals champions.
Below, we look at 10 contenders to watch in every division, plus list everyone who finished at least as a runner-up in 2017 and all of the top seeds heading into this weekend. Even then, we surely missed a few who will end up rising to the top of the podium Saturday – but come back to Second Half early Sunday as we’ll interview and report on all 56 champions.
The “Grand March” on Friday begins at 11:45 a.m., with five rounds wrestled throughout the day including the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Wrestling picks back up with consolation rounds at 9 a.m. Saturday, and concludes with the championship matches that afternoon at 3 p.m.
112: Nick Alayan, Macomb Dakota junior (46-1) – He just missed winning the 103 championship last season, falling 4-3 in the title match, but enters this weekend as the top seed at 112.
119: Benyamin Kamali, Detroit Catholic Central senior (31-1) – Kamali is looking to finish his career with a third individual title after winning 103 as a sophomore and 112 last winter, and he’s the top seed again this weekend.
125: Michael Mars, Westland John Glenn senior (49-0) – The top-seeded Mars also is working for a third individual title after winning 103 as a freshman and 112 as a sophomore but finishing runner-up at 119 last year; he’s 208-8 over his career.
140: Nick Freeman, Walled Lake Central senior (25-0) – While brother Ben Freeman was winning his fourth individual championship last season, Nick was locking down his first at 125; now he’s a combined 60-1 over the last two seasons and the top seed at 140.
145: Kevon Davenport, Detroit Catholic Central junior (37-3) – The top seed at 145 won 119 as a freshman and 130 last year, and is a combined 127-9 over his first three seasons so far.
152: Cameron Amine, Detroit Catholic Central junior (40-2) – Amine also is looking to add a third title after winning 125 as a freshman and 145 last year, and enters as the top seed at 152 with a 124-14 career record.
160: William Marano, Dearborn Edsel Ford senior (51-0) – The top seed at 160 just missed his first championship last year losing a 6-4 decision at this weight; he also placed at the Finals as a freshman and sophomore and is 204-13 entering this weekend.
171: Layne Malczewski, Macomb Dakota senior (51-0) – Malczewski will try to add a first individual title after placing third twice and fourth once over his first three seasons; he’s the top seed at 171 and enters with a career record of 217-22.
189: Benjamin Cushman, Flushing senior (49-0) – The top seed at 189 was last season’s champ at 215 and is a combined 105-0 over the last two winters.
285: Austin Emerson, Temperance Bedford senior (44-3) – Two of the top seed’s losses were to Dundee three-time champ Brandon Whitman; Emerson was the runner-up at 285 last season and he’s 93-5 combined over the last two.
Other 2017 runners-up: 130 Joshua Edmond, Detroit Catholic Central sophomore (20-0, 135 in Division 2 in 2017 wrestling for Orchard Lake St. Mary's); 140 Anthony Gibson, Westland John Glenn senior (46-4, 135 in 2017).
Additional No. 1 seeds: 103 Blake Noonan, Rochester Hills Stoney Creek sophomore (43-0); 130 Joshua Edmond, Detroit Catholic Central sophomore (20-0); 135 Derek Gilcher, Detroit Catholic Central sophomore (35-5); 215 Easton Turner, Detroit Catholic Central junior (35-1).
Also undefeated: 135 Isiah Berry, Southfield Arts & Technology senior (44-0); 152 Alex Facundo, Davison freshman (27-0); 189 Chris Hackney, Fraser senior (18-0).
103: Riley Bettich, Stevensville Lakeshore sophomore (39-2) – Last season’s runner-up at this weight lost in sudden victory to Chayse LaJoie (see below) but will come back this weekend as the top seed.
112: Chayse LaJoie, Gaylord sophomore (42-4) – He’s following his graduated brother Dominic’s three titles by going for a second straight after winning 103 last year; he sits at 94-7 over his first two and is seeded first at this weight.
119: Austin Franco, Niles senior (40-0) – Franco is hoping to add a championship to runner-up finishes at 119 last season and 112 as a freshman (and a third place at 112 as a sophomore); he’s 160-5 for his career and a top seed.
125: Chaise Mayer, Warren Woods Tower junior (47-1) – Mayer has finished runner-up at 103 and 112 the last two seasons, respectively, but is the top seed at 125 with a 148-10 career record.
130: Branson Proudlock, Gibraltar Carlson senior (42-1) – A fourth-place finisher at 103 as a freshman, runner-up at 112 as a sophomore and champ at 119 as a junior, he’s top-seeded at 130 and brings a 196-7 record into his final weekend as a high school competitor.
135: Corbyn Munson, Chelsea senior (50-0) – Last season’s runner-up at 125 is 102-3 over the last two seasons and a top seed this weekend.
145: Austin Boone, Lowell sophomore (40-1) – Boone is 80-4 over the last two seasons and the top seed at this weight after winning 135 a year ago over DCC’s Edmond (see above).
152: Alec Rees, Sparta junior (43-0) – Rees is another top seed, coming off a runner-up finish at 145 last season after losing a tie-breaker to Austin O’Hearon (see below) in the championship match; that was his only loss of the last two seasons, and he’s 138-6 over his career.
160: Austin O’Hearon, Eaton Rapids senior (43-1) – The top-seeded O’Hearon will try to add one more title to last season’s exciting win and has placed all three years of high school in building a 180-20 career record.
160: Dustin Gross, Dearborn Heights Annapolis senior (55-0) – A three-time placer and two-time runner-up, Gross is on the opposite side of the 160 bracket from O’Hearon as he seeks his first title and to add to a 211-12 career record.
Additional No. 1 seeds: 140 James Whitaker, St. Johns junior (35-1); 171 Ryan Ringler, Cedar Springs junior (49-1); 189 Drake Pauwels, New Boston Huron senior (46-0); 215 Tyler Moore, Three Rivers senior (53-2); 285 Tyler Hill, Stevensville Lakeshore senior (35-2).
Also undefeated: 112 Vincent Perez, Tecumseh junior (50-0).
103: Hunter Assenmacher, Ida sophomore (49-0) – Last season’s runner-up at this weight is now the top seed and hasn’t lost again since falling to Sean Spidle (below) by 7-3 decision in that championship match.
112: Sean Spidle, Flint Powers Catholic sophomore (36-3) – Spidle won the matchup of freshmen over Assenmacher to claim last year’s title at 103 and now enters as the top seed at 112.
125: Dakota Greer, Howard City Tri-County senior (39-2) – Top-seeded Greer is looking to finish his career with a third championship after winning 103 as a freshman, failing to advance as a sophomore because of an injury but then coming back to win at 119 a year ago.
130: Jarrett Trombley, Lake Fenton senior (55-0) – Trombley is another top seed and looking to add this title to the others won at 112, 119 and 130 his first three seasons; he enters the weekend with a 191-1 record and hasn’t lost since freshman year.
130: Mitchel Christensen, Essexville Garber junior (49-2) – Anyone in Trombley’s bracket has an uphill battle, but Christensen is among the most capable for climbing it after winning the title at 112 last year.
145: Sean Trombley, Lake Fenton junior (45-1) – In addition to being Jarrett’s brother, Sean Trombley placed at 135 as a freshman and was the runner-up at 140 last season before earning the top seed at this weight this weekend.
152: Zachary Bellaire, Dundee senior (39-7) – Bellaire won the 140 championship last season in a decision over Sean Trombley and enters with a top seed and 77-12 record over the last two winters.
160: Tylor Orrison, Dundee senior (41-3) – Orrison is hoping to close with a title at 160 to go with his championship won last season at 145 and top-six placings as a freshman and sophomore; he’s 160-32 for his career.
215: Brandon Whitman, Dundee senior (43-0) – Whitman will go after his fourth title as a top seed and carrying a 193-2 career record; his first three championships came at 189 twice and 171.
285: Tyler Marino, Richmond senior (27-5) – Marino will enter his last Finals as a top seed after coming in runner-up at 215 a year ago; he’s 74-11 over the last two.
Other 2017 runners-up: 215 Colton McKiernan, Richmond senior (37-2, 189 in 2017).
Additional No. 1 seeds: 119 Noah Cantu, Hart junior (47-0); 135 Stoney Buell, Dundee freshman (39-4); 140 Matthew Lipka, Montague senior (46-1); 160 Gavin Morgan, Mount Morris sophomore (39-0); 171 Owen Guilford, Portland junior (36-1); 189 Ethan Weatherspoon, Napoleon junior (50-0).
Also undefeated: 103 Robbie Altland, Hart junior (48-0); 130 Adam Bruce, Gladstone junior (39-0); 189 Jamane Smith, Coloma senior (44-0), 215 Joe Nagle, Comstock Park senior (49-0).
112: Reese Fry, Manchester senior (52-1) – Fry is the top seed at 112 after winning 103 last season and also finishing runner-up at that weight as a sophomore; he’s 147-9 over the last three seasons.
125: Noah Comar, Clinton junior (54-2) – Comar is a repeat top seed after winning at 112 last season and finishing runner-up at that weight as a freshman; he’s 160-6 over his first three seasons.
130: Jordan Hamdan, Hudson junior (48-0) – The top seed at 130 won 119 last year and 112 as a freshman and enters 147-8 for his career.
130: Robert Rogers, Burton Bentley senior (37-2) – Rogers is the reigning champ at 130 and won 125 as a sophomore; he enters his final weekend of high school competition 172-8 for his career.
135: Skyler Crespo, Mendon sophomore (51-1) – The top seed at this weight won last year at 125 against a 2016 individual champion; Crespo is 107-2 for his career so far.
145: Jayce Kuehnlein, St. Louis senior (41-3) – Last season’s runner-up at 135 is the top seed at 145 and also placed as a sophomore; he’s 135-17 over the last three years.
152: Gerrit Yates, Hesperia senior (35-5) – The top seed at 152, Yates is the reigning champ and also finished runner-up as a freshman (135) and sophomore (145); he’s 176-15 entering his final high school tournament.
160: Zach Young, Hesperia senior (47-0) – Young has made a jump in his final season from third place at 140 last year to the top seed at this weight and hasn’t lost since falling in last season’s semifinal.
160: Zack Menck, Lawton senior (51-2) – Menck was the runner-up at 152 last season and also a placer as a sophomore; he’s 149-13 over the last three winters.
215: Eric Cassiday, Beaverton senior (44-1) – Eric is the oldest of three Cassiday brothers who will compete this weekend and enters as the top seed at 215; he placed sixth at 189 last season.
Other 2017 runners-up: 119 Jamison Ward, Carson City-Crystal sophomore (48-1, 103 in 2017); 140 Nick Felt, Shelby junior (47-4, 130 in 2017); 145 Braxton Seida, Carson City-Crystal junior (45-3, 140 in 2017).
Additional No. 1 seeds: 103 AJ Baxter, Clinton freshman (51-2); 119 Khalil Moten, Flint Beecher junior (37-2); 140 Austin Wolford, New Lothrop junior (48-2); 152 Jake Davis, St. Louis senior (40-3); 171 Wyatt Cool, Mendon senior (49-2); 189 Kyle Cassiday, Beaverton junior (52-1); 285 Jackson Schenk, Mayville senior (44-2).
PHOTO: Wrestlers square off during the 2015 Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Click for more from 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.)