By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
BATTLE CREEK – With the MHSAA Division 3 wrestling championship at stake, Richmond senior Connor Behem had his Dundee opponent on his back Saturday afternoon at Kellogg Arena.
It was the first minute of their match, and the Dundee wrestler frantically was trying to raise his hand, as if he were reaching for a championship but in reality simply trying to avoid a pin. Behem, meanwhile, was using his wrestling repertoire as he tried to pin his opponent’s shoulders to the mat.
“Time was going by really slowly,” Behem said. “It felt like an hour when he was on his back, but I knew it was only a few seconds.”
Finally, 67 seconds into the match, Behem got the pin, not only ending an incredible comeback that netted Richmond the MHSAA championship but writing a script that Hollywood would have a tough time turning down.
Richmond edged Dundee 27-25 for its seventh Finals championship and fourth in the past six years.
Richmond faced Dundee in the Final for the third year in a row, and Dundee, the two-time defending champion, had a comfortable 25-12 lead with three matches left.
“I thought it was slipping away,” Richmond coach Brandon Day said. “For them to come out and do what they did, I’m so proud of them.”
After a decision by Adam Boyd and a pin by Roy Costello, Richmond pulled within 25-21 going into the final match at 112 pounds. Richmond needed a pin by Behem to win the championship, and when he pinned Wallace, the Richmond bench and crowd erupted with joy.
“I kind of broke down emotionally,” Behem said. “It felt so good, words can’t even describe it.”
Behem’s knee locked up in the morning practice, and Roberts did not use him in the 32-19 victory over Remus Chippewa Hills in the Semifinal match.
“His ACL and meniscus are completely torn,” Day said. “He has practiced one day in the last three weeks. We were lucky enough to be able to sit him in the semis. ... Sacrifice won this for us, no doubt.”
Behem played off the injury, as his euphoria likely dampened any pain he might have been feeling.
“My knee is a little bummed, but it’s all right,” he said.
Boyd began the big comeback with a 3-0 victory over Gabe Heiserman at 285. Although a pin would have been huge, Richmond needed at least a decision to stay alive in the match.
“Everyone was telling me I had to get six, and it kind of got in my head a little bit,” Boyd said. “I kind of got away and started talking to our coach and Devin Skatzka, and they calmed me back down and said just get the win, and I got the win.”
Next up was Costello at 103, and he wasted little time in deciding his match with a pin in 31 seconds.
“It was like do or die. I knew I had to do it,” Costello said. “I was so happy as soon as I locked that up. Then I just told Connor good luck.
“I knew Connor was going to get that pin, but once the referee hit that mat, I was up. I was so happy I cried for joy.”
Behem took the mat with the weight of the entire wrestling program on his back and his weakened right knee. He felt it.
“I was nervous, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I saw my teammates get it done before me, so that helped me. I saw Roy pick up the pin and Adam pick up a big win, so once I got on the mat, all my nerves went away. It felt good.
“I could not have went out my senior year any better than this. Individuals (Finals) are pretty crazy, but nothing compares to team state finals. Nothing.”
Richmond, which finished 32-5, won just six of the 14 matches in the Final but picked up nine bonus points with three pins. Skatzka, a three-time individual MHSAA champion, had the other pin in 56 seconds over Kyle Reinhart at 160 pounds.
Skatzka said the entire team was computing what it would take for the Blue Devils to erase the late 13-point deficit.
“We all were counting it up in our head,” Skatzka said. “We knew we had our matches at 103 and 112, and we were kind of counting on pins from them, and it happened just how we counted on them.
“I can’t even describe what it felt like. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been through. I’ve won three state titles in my life and the team state title my freshman year. Nothing has been more exciting than this. Nothing compares to this.”
Richmond’s other victories came on decisions by Aaron Kilburn at 125 and Austin Pawlak at 152.
Dundee, which has been in the MHSAA Finals in eight of the past nine years, ended its season at 25-6. Of their eight wins in the Final, only one registered more than the three points. Sophomore Sean Sterling scored a 22-9 major decision at 145 pounds.
The seven other victories picked up by Dundee were by Drew Scholl (119), Drew Mandell (130), Kenny Reinhart (135), Zach Blevins (140), Donny Mandell (171), Brandon Whitman (189) and Tye Thompson (215).
“It was a good dual,” Dundee coach Tim Roberts said. “We end up having great duals every year. They have a great team and do a great job over there, and they have a great coach, obviously.
“They did a super job, I have to give them credit.”
Six Dundee wrestlers finished 3-0 over the weekend: Donny Mandell, Reinhart, Blevins, Sterling, Whitman and Thompson. Skatzka and Costello were the only Richmond wrestlers to go 3-0 for the weekend.
“I am so proud of the effort from everybody from top to bottom,” Day said. “We gave up bonus points one match, and we had three falls.
“That’s how you win state titles.”
PHOTO: Richmond poses with its MHSAA Division 3 championship trophy Saturday at Kellogg Arena. (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.)