It is pretty well-known now that a historic wrestling run by Benzie Central came to an end in a Division 4 Quarterfinal last weekend.
Perhaps equally known is the Huskies qualified 11 grapplers for the Individual Finals taking place today and Saturday at Ford Field.
But not many are familiar with the story of senior athletes Wyatt Noffsinger and Austin Smith — the undisputed motivational leaders of the team — and their personal Benzie wrestling history.
The story began when Noffsinger was an eighth grader. He took a trip with a friend and his father to watch the MHSAA Finals. And it is ending this weekend with Noffsinger and Smith watching — and cheering on — their teammates at the championship event.
Noffsinger and Smith did not qualify for this weekend’s competition. Noffsinger fell one point shy in his 175-pound bracket at the Individual Regional. And Smith graciously had opted to give up his spot in the postseason lineup to Noffsinger.
Last year Smith was among 12 Benzie wrestlers who advanced to Regionals. And injuries kept Noffsinger off the mat.
“It’s a proud moment for me as a coach,” said 10-year veteran coach Josh Lovendusky. “These two guys haven’t missed a practice in the postseason because they knew they had to be there for the team to help them train so they can be ready for the Finals.
“They don’t have to be there — they put their team first,” he continued. “They’re giving up their time to make sure their teammates are successful.
Noffsinger and Smith represent what the Huskies – who made their first-ever appearance at Team Finals weekend – are all about, according to Lovendusky, who now shares his coaching duties with co-coach Cody Vandonkelaar.
“It is what we’ve been trying to embody this entire season,” Lovendusky said. “Coaching for as long as I have, I have never seen somebody as selfless as these two individuals have been this season.”
Smith may get the honor of being the most selfless. He voluntarily gave up his slot wrestling at 144 pounds for his friend Noffsinger, nicknamed “Cheddar.”
Teams may send only 14 competitors into the individual tournament (not counting the girls division). Benzie’s postseason roster was developed by team vote, and Smith was originally selected. After stewing on it for a few days and recalling how Noffsinger – who wrestles at 175 pounds – didn’t get a shot at Districts or Regionals last year, Smith approached Vandonkelaar about making the change.
“I only felt right that we both get three chances at (the postseason),” Smith said of his decision. “I don’t get four and he only gets two.
“I just thought it would be fair if we both went three for three.”
Both Smith and Noffsinger are thrilled the coaches made the roster change, especially since it resulted in a nail-biting finish in the “blood round” – the round that determines the final two qualifiers who will advance or be done. As luck would have it, Noffsinger faced a teammate in his Finals-qualifying match hosted by Charlevoix, and lost by one point.
“Cheddar exceeded my expectations, to be honest,” Smith said. “It came down to one point.
“I was on the end of my seat, and whoever lost I’d feel bad for and whoever won I’d feel awesome for,” Smith continued. “He came up a little bit short, and I am just happy he got a shot to go.”
Noffsinger is at the top of his class academically and led the Huskies to academic all-state recognition this year. The three-sport star is grateful Smith yielded his spot.
“Austin didn’t have to do that,” Noffsinger said. “I wasn’t expecting it.
“It completely says a lot about who he is as a man … who he is as a friend,” he continued. “I was so grateful.”
Without Smith, Noffsinger is quick to point out, he would not have had the chance to fulfill the dream of competing at the Finals that began with that eighth-grade trip.
“Knowing that I was going to have the last shot to make it was a huge sense of relief and gratitude for him as a friend to give me that opportunity,” Noffsinger said. “I wanted to win really bad and make it.
“And the same time, it hurts knowing if you do win, you’re going to take a teammate’s shot at making it – and it really hurt knowing your dream was gone,” Noffsinger said of falling one point short. “It is still cool because we made it as a team, and it will be awesome to be down there for the experience and the amazing atmosphere.”
Lovendusky is quick to point out the two seniors represent much more leadership than any coach could ever request.
“These two individuals are the unsung, motivational leaders of this team,” Lovendusky said. “At the team states neither one of them wrestled, but they were the absolute loudest.
“They made sure the team was ready to go,” Lovendusky continued. “You can’t ask for better senior leadership than kids giving everything they have even though they didn’t have the opportunity to wrestle, and they were a pivotal part of what our team did.”
Smith and Noffsinger have one more leadership task to complete when the Individual Finals are over. They’ll lead the charge into the Brazilian steak house that’s become a tradition for the Huskies team.
They’re looking forward to the large serving of steak on a skewer. And they will celebrate this year’s team making history.
“It’s all-you-can-eat meat, and it’s an awesome experience,” said Noffsinger.
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) From left: Benzie Central co-coach Cody Vandonkelaar, Wyatt Noffsinger, Austin Smith and co-coach Josh Lovendusky show off the program’s hardware won this winter. (Middle) Smith and Noffsinger help as officials at a youth wrestling tournament this week. (Below) Smith celebrates a match win, while Noffsinger attempts to break free from an opponent. (Photos courtesy of Jill Robinson and Shane Iverson.)
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.)