Senior Pair's Selfless Leadership Crucial to Benzie Central's Historic Run
By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com
March 3, 2023
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.)
Bragging Rights for Both as Multi-Sport Sage Twins Shine at Ford Field
By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com
March 10, 2023
SOUTHGATE – The question of “Which child is your favorite?” is impossible for any parent to answer, but Shawn Sage has an additional question that’s impossible to answer regarding his son Jackson and daughter Brooklyn.
That question is, “Who would win a wrestling match between the two?”
“They are both raising their hands right now smiling about it,” Shawn Sage said with a laugh during a phone conversation.
It’s a good-natured question anybody can pose to Shawn Sage, given his son and daughter are not only twins by birth, but in wrestling achievements as sophomores at Southgate Anderson.
Last weekend at Ford Field, Jackson Sage competed in his second Individual Finals, where he finished fourth in Division 2 in the 157-pound weight class.
It was an improvement from last year’s event, when he qualified as a freshman but didn’t place.
“I was more used to it,” Jackson Sage said. “Last year was a different experience being at Ford Field the first time.”
Brooklyn Sage qualified for the Individual Finals this season as well, where she finished sixth in the Girls Division 155-pound weight class.
The winter was busy for both, but especially for Brooklyn. In addition to competing in wrestling, she was also a member of the school’s competitive cheer team.
“I knew that it would be a commitment,” she said. “But I was up for it. I was at the school for about 14 hours a day, but it was worth it at the end.”
Jackson and Brooklyn are each three-sport athletes. Jackson is the quarterback on the football team in the fall and a member of the track team (he competes in 300 hurdles and two relays) in the spring, while Brooklyn plays softball.
But it’s wrestling where the two share their greatest bond athletically.
Jackson started getting involved in the sport when was around elementary school age, and Brooklyn would tag along to practices.
Along the way, she became intrigued enough to try wrestling herself.
“I liked being able to know that I could defend myself and take care of myself in different ways,” she said. “To be able to stand up for myself.”
Brooklyn said she stopped wrestling competitively around sixth grade because there weren’t opportunities for girls to compete only against each other, but that changed when a girls-only division was added to the MHSAA Tournament with the 2021-22 season.
With both able to compete in high school, at-home workouts intensified. The two regularly train against each other on a mat in their basement, where technique is honed and toughness is sharpened.
“She pushes me a lot,” Jackson said.
Both also learn from each other’s experiences.
“I feel like watching him made me more motivated to do it,” Brooklyn said. “He’s taught me a lot of technique that I wouldn’t have known from his past experiences and coach.”
Added Jackson: “I’ve learned from her matches.”
This week has actually presented a rarity for both in that they’ve had time off.
With wrestling ending and spring sports not officially opening practice until Monday, the two haven’t had practices and competitions.
That’ll change next week when they go their separate ways with Jackson to track practice and Brooklyn joining the softball squad, and they’ll focus on those sports for the rest of the school year.
But with two more years of eligibility left and all-state finishes in wrestling already, the sky is the limit for the next two years in that sport for both.
With that in mind, the questions to Dad about who would win a match are likely only getting started.
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTO Southgate Anderson twins Brooklyn, left, and Jackson Sage both placed at this season’s Wrestling Individual Finals. (Photo courtesy of the Sage family.)