By Greg Tunnicliff
Special for Second Half
BATTLE CREEK – Rematches are always fun.
But they don’t get any better than when they are between the top two teams, and in the MHSAA Finals.
Detroit Catholic Central, ranked No. 1, and Davison, ranked No. 2, met for the second time this winter in Saturday’s Division 1 championship match at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
The highly-anticipated rematch lived up to its billing, with the Shamrocks pulling out a thrilling 29-26 victory when junior Evan Toth earned a pin at 125 pounds with 36 seconds left in the third period.
Toth trailed 9-2 before he successfully put a headlock on Davison junior Derek Humphrey, turned him over, and recorded the six-point victory to send the Shamrocks’ bench and many of the capacity crowd of 3,618 into a frenzy.
Coincidentally, Toth lost to a wrestler from Oxford in the last match of the 2011 state finals. The Wildcats beat the Shamrocks 26-25.
“I’ve been in that situation before,” Toth said. “I knew we needed more than three points, and I was looking for something big the whole match. I knew what I had to do. You have to wrestle the whole six minutes. (Winning the championship) is the highest high you can have.”
It is DCC’s second straight MHSAA title and 10th overall. The Shamrocks ended this winter 25-3.
“I’m at a loss for words,” DCC coach Mitch Hancock said. “(Toth) never gave up. When you’re a Shamrock you believe to the end, and he did.”
While the Shamrocks were overjoyed Saturday, Davison’s contingent was stunned. The Cardinals led for most of the match and appeared to be headed for their first MHSAA title since 2006 when they took a 26-23 lead on 3-1 decision by Lincoln Olson at 119 pounds.
Humphrey got off to fast start at 125 and controlled the majority of the match, leading 4-1 after the first period and 9-2 after the second.
Davison ended this season 14-5.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Davison coach Roy Hall said. “That kid (Toth) found his position. He had one opportunity to hit a home run.”
In a star-studded Division 1 lineup that featured eight teams that had won a combined 34 team championships, it was no surprise that Davison and DCC faced each other in the Final.
Entering this weekend’s final round of the state tournament, the Cardinals and the Shamrocks boasted a combined 17 MHSAA titles and three runner-up finishes. Both teams featured a combined 21 ranked wrestlers.
DCC and Davison were the top two seeded teams, with Catholic Central at No. 1 and Davison No. 2. Both squads more than lived up to their lofty billings by demolishing their quarterfinal and semifinal opponents.
Davison defeated Holt, 50-12, in Friday’s Quarterfinals before polishing off third-seeded Hartland, 44-15, in Saturday’s Semifinals. The Shamrocks beat eighth-seeded Grandville, 62-7, before downing fourth-seeded Rochester, 48-13.
Davison started out Saturday’s championship rematch in much better fashion than its first encounter with Catholic Central, a 44-23 setback on Dec. 14.
Saturday’s match began at 130 pounds and Davison captured the first five weights to take an 18-3 lead. DCC was able to get back into match, primarily, because of the performances of its heavyweights.
The Shamrocks captured four straight weights from 171-285, recording back-to-back major decisions at 171 and 189 and a pin at 285 by senior Bob Coe that gave Catholic Central its first lead at 20-18.
“The whole year we didn’t talk about repeating,” Coe said. “Now that it’s done, we can talk about a repeat. I firmly believe we have the best coaching staff in the country and the hardest-working team in the country.”
One of the big reasons Davison was able to stay with Catholic Central and nearly win was the return two-time individual champion Justin Oliver and the performance of freshman Max Johnson.
Oliver did not compete in the Cardinals’ first match with the Shamrocks, and they both recorded key victories Saturday. Oliver opened the match at 130 by recording a 3-0 victory over Myles Amine, giving the Cardinals a 3-0 lead.
After Catholic Central came and took the lead, Johnson gave Davison the lead back at 23-20 with a technical fall victory, 15-0, over the Shamrocks’ Tommy Herrimann at 103 pounds.
“Justin Oliver is a two-time state champion,” said Hall of Oliver, who returned to the Cardinals’ lineup at the team District tournament. “He is a stud and he lights up an athletic event. I was happy with the effort. That’s all you can ask for. Our guys will be back.”
The Cardinals almost put a huge distance between themselves and Catholic Central when Jacob Madrigal nearly pinned Parker O’Brien at 112 pounds.
Trailing 4-2 with less than 10 seconds left in the third period, Madrigal flipped O’Brien over and came seconds away from securing a pin before time expired. O’Brien took the victory and tied the match.
“I went a little too quick,” O’Brien said. “I went for two points (takedown) and I got a little sloppy. I just held on for the win.”
The loss was only the Cardinals’ third to a Michigan team this season. Besides Catholic Central, the only other Michigan squad to beat Davison was St. Johns, which beat Lowell, 42-20, in the Division 2 championship match.
“It’s very tough,” Hancock said of having to face Davison again. “We knew they were a much better team than we faced in December. Anytime you have (Davison’s coaches) Roy Hall and Paul Donahoe in a corner, you’re in for a war. We persevered.”
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.)