By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
SAGINAW — The trash talk of an intense rivalry can wait.
For now, Matt Santos and K.J. Suitor wear the same colors, representing the same school, focusing on the same goal — winning individual MHSAA wrestling championships.
The Saginaw Swan Valley seniors also are helping each other attain that goal, providing the other with one of the best training partners available in the state.
When the MHSAA Division 3 Individual Wrestling Finals end March 5 at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Santos and Suitor will no longer be teammates for the first time in six years.
The next stop for Santos will be Michigan State University, where he will wrestle for the Spartans.
Suitor will move on to University of Michigan to wrestle for the Wolverines.
While the irony of two teammates becoming rivals isn't lost on either wrestler, it's a storyline they've minimized during their final season together at Swan Valley.
"We'll have an occasional laugh about that," Suitor said.
"Yeah, we get that a lot," Santos said. "We've talked about it a little bit, but not too much. Right now it's all about business, talking about what's happening right now. It's about states and stuff like that. I'm sure we'll get to that more."
As wrestlers in the same college conference, there is the chance that Santos and Suitor could one day take the mat against each other. They are only one weight class apart, Santos wrestling at 135 pounds and Suitor at 130. Santos has always been significantly bigger than Suitor, but the weight gap has closed to within five pounds this season.
"We don't really talk about it too much," Suitor said. "It's definitely a possibility. We're getting pretty close in weight. We don't really focus on that. Right now, the primary goal is to finish out the year on the best note possible at the state championships. I can see us talking about it later down the road. We'd both give it our all. It wouldn't be anything less than what we've been doing."
What Santos and Suitor have been doing day in and day out in the Swan Valley wrestling room is prepare each other to succeed on the biggest stage.
While they've never wrestled against each other in a competitive match, their practice sessions can be tougher than some of their matches.
"Most of the time, we're just working on moves, but once in a while we do go live," Santos said. "It's a brawl; we go at it."
Suitor knows that he can't take a day off in practice with a partner like Santos awaiting him.
"Matt is an extremely hard worker," Suitor said. "As soon as you enter the room, you know you're going to go 100 percent. That's really good to know. He helped me get to the next level. We thrive off each other. It's great knowing I can walk in and I'm going to get the best partner in the state."
Santos was the 130-pound champion in Division 3 last year after taking second at 119 as a freshman and fourth at 125 as a sophomore. He is the No. 1-ranked wrestler in that weight class in all divisions, according to MichiganGrappler.com.
The only loss for Santos in a 48-1 season was a 3-2 decision against St. Johns senior Ian Parker, the No. 1-ranked wrestler in all divisions at 140 pounds and an Iowa State recruit. Santos is 190-10 in his career and is ranked 13th nationally at 132 pounds by InterMat.
"I always want the better matches with the better guys," Santos said. "That's what makes you better as a wrestler. Yeah, I want to go undefeated. At the same time, going into the state tournament I don't have the pressure to be undefeated. I have to go out there and wrestle now."
Suitor has been on the podium all three years, but has yet to grab the top spot. He was seventh at 103 as a freshman, second at 112 as a sophomore and fourth at 125 as a junior. He is ranked fourth overall in the state at 130 behind two Division 3 wrestlers, No. 1 Alex Martinez of Ida and No. 2 Kole Krauss of Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Suitor's only loss this season was a 3-0 decision to third-ranked Dallas O'Green of Division 4 Carson City-Crystal in January. Suitor is 51-1 this season and 219-12 for his career. The 219 wins are a school record, and he’s just outside the top 30 for career victories in MHSAA history.
"It definitely sent a message," Suitor said of the loss. "It was like a blessing in disguise. It gives you something to go back and work on the drawing board to prep for future matches like that. It takes a load off going undefeated. It's a great opportunity, but it also just adds more stress than you need. You tend to wrestle more at ease. You're not afraid to make as many mistakes."
Swan Valley coach Darrell Burchfield guided both athletes through the recruiting process, starting it out by sending about 70 letters to Division I and II colleges on behalf of his wrestlers. He also asked them to come up with a list of schools which offer the degree programs they are interested in pursuing.
Suitor is going into finance with a goal of eventually working for a professional sports team, while Santos will major in physical therapy.
"They are very different," Burchfield said. "Both are excellent character kids. Both are hard workers. Both are strong goal-bound people. You don't get the success without that. Matt just has incredible discipline in everything he goes. He maps things out a little bit different than K.J. K.J. looks at things from the 10,000-foot view; these are the steps he needs to go and the steps he's going to take. Matt will map out this day and he'll do this. He has his meal plans down, what time he's going to bed."
Having each other as wrestling partners has helped Santos and Suitor shore up their weaknesses, Burchfield said.
"It's a huge help," Burchfield said. "Historically, K.J. had struggled with short, quick, strong guys a little bit and Matt had struggled with guys who had a lot of length. So, their body styles helped each other out this year. We've had a good room over the last several years, so they've had a lot of different people to work with. This year, they've drilled with each other every day."
The only time Swan Valley has produced two MHSAA individual champions was in 2009, when B.J. Suitor won at 112 pounds and Jake Jeske won at 145 in Division 3. B.J. Suitor, K.J.'s brother, was a three-time champion from 2007-09. He's the only Swan Valley wrestler to win multiple titles, an exclusive club Santos looks to join on March 5.
"My freshman year, the first time being in the Finals, it's scary," Santos said. "Now that I've been there for three years, been in the Finals and won, it takes a lot of the pressure off."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. 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) Matt Santos (left) and K.J. Suitor compete during last season’s MHSAA Individual Finals. (Middle) Santos claps after claiming the Division 3 championship at 130 pounds. (Below) Suitor wrestles his first-round match at 125. (Click for more photos 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.”
2023 Made In Michigan
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
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.)