By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – St. Johns’ seniors heard most of it and read the rest over the last year.
Those last three MHSAA team wrestling championships simply were the product of an incredible senior class that had combined for six individual championships. Throw in a new coach this winter, and the Redwings would fall off their roost as the dominant program in Division 2.
But these seniors – including five who will wrestle in the Big Ten next season – knew better.
“Of course we did. This is the same group of guys who just keep working hard, keep going after it,” St. Johns senior Josh Pennell said. “Just because one grade moves out, that doesn't mean we (don’t) have kids from underneath moving in and replacing those kids."
With 2012 graduates Taylor Massa and Jordan Wohlfert looking on – as fans, this time – the teammates they left behind finished a run achieved by only three schools before.
Top-seeded St. Johns defeated Lowell in the Division 2 Final at Kellogg Arena on Saturday, 42-20, to become the fourth school to win four straight MHSAA team wrestling titles since the beginning of the Team Finals format in 1988.
“We proved that it just wasn't a fluke, one grade that just could do everything,” Pennell said. “The truth is we've got what it takes to win state championships, if we work as a team to win.”
The two teams also met in last season’s Final, with St. Johns winning 41-18.
Pennell and senior Jacob Schmitt started in all four championship match wins during this run, and senior Brant Schafer no doubt would've done the same had an injury not ended his season earlier this winter.
Total, this senior class finished with a 115-8 dual meet record.
By numbers alone, this season’s 22-4 finish was the least impressive of their run. But those losses this winter came to eventual Division 1 championship Detroit Catholic Central – which St. Johns also then beat – plus ranked Division 1 Brighton and Division 2 Fowlerville, and Ohio powerhouse Lakewood St. Edward.
The only other teams to win at least four straight titles during the Team Finals era were Davison from 2002-06, Hudson – which joined Davison as the only two with five straight by winning Division 4 on Saturday – and Dundee from 1995-98.
“These guys, they have moxie. They've got attitude. They want to be here and all that stuff,” said St. Johns coach Derek Phillips, who took over the program this winter after seven seasons as an assistant.
“I had a bond with these kids. I’d been with them for all four (titles), and winning breeds winning. They wanted it, and they were going to do everything they could to get those Ws.”
Schmitt and sophomore Logan Massa needed a combined 51 seconds to build St. Johns a 12-0 lead to start the championship match. Senior Ben Whitford, sophomore Drew Wixson, senior Payne Hayden and junior Zac Hall also won by fall for the Redwings. Junior Derek Krajewski and freshman Zeth Dean won major decisions late for the Red Arrows to tighten the final margin, although Lowell did win six matches total.
The Red Arrows, which entered the weekend as the second seed, finished 19-7. But there’s no reason to think they won’t be back at Kellogg Arena again in 2014 – although they started three seniors in the championship match, they also started five freshmen.
“They fought today. I’m proud of my team” Lowell coach Dave Dean said. “This is a very young team, so we’re building on a really good foundation."
Lowell will have nine qualifiers at next weekend’s Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and St. Johns will send 11. The Redwings' senior class certainly will be remembered among the most impressive in Michigan in some time, regardless of what happens next weekend. Whitford and Hayden have signed with the University of Michigan, Pennell with Michigan State, Schmitt with Northwestern and Schafer with Indiana.
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.)