By Jeff Chaney
Special to Second Half
AUBURN HILLS, MI – It's a moment Zac Hall said he will never forget.
Hall joined elite company by winning his fourth MHSAA individual wrestling championship, when he beat Greenville's Alec Ward 12-2 in the 140-pound title match in Division 2 at the Finals on Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The St. Johns senior became just the 18th Michigan wrestler to win four MHSAA Finals titles, and when the referee raised his hand after his victory, the large crowd at The Palace rose to their feet and applauded loudly in appreciation.
“That is the most amazing feeling in the world. I'll remember that moment for the rest of my life,” Hall said. “I don't know how many people are here, thousands, and they were all clapping for me. That is the most awesome feeling.”
This marks the third straight year a wrestler has won his fourth title. Last year Fowlerville heavyweight Adam Coon accomplished it, and two years ago it was Hall's former St. Johns teammate Taylor Massa.
“All that hard work and time you put in in the (practice room), it pays off,” Hall said. “When your buddies want you to hang out, and instead you are in the room grinding, that all just paid off here.”
Champion: Dominic LaJoie, Gaylord, Fr. (50-1)
Decision, 11-7 over Dalton Roberts, Fowlerville, Sr. (46-6)
LaJoie is well on his way to becoming a four-time champion, as he built a large early lead over Roberts and held on for a 11-7 win.
LaJoie scored the match's first seven points, and then fought off a furious Roberts rally in the third period.
“I just came out and went as hard as I could,” LaJoie said. “This feels really awesome. I owe a lot to my dad (Jerry LaJoie), my coaches and my partners in the room. This is a great feeling.”
Champion: Lucas Hall, Lowell, Soph. (37-0)
Fall, 2:19 over Bryan LaVearn, Ortonville Brandon, Soph. (50-2)
Hall didn't listen to all the nay-sayers. He knew he had what it takes to win an MHSAA title and went out and proved that by pinning LaVearn in their 112-pound title match.
Hall used one of his signature moves, “the high flyer,” to pin LaVearn for the win.
“People have been trying to get into my head, posting stuff on Twitter and Facebook, but you can't let that get to you,” Hall said. “You just need to keep your head and keep looking forward. I know I had a bull’s eye on my back because I came in undefeated and ranked number one. You can't let all that get in your head; you just have to keep after it.”
Champion: Mason Smith, Clio, Jr. (55-0)
Decision, 3-1 over Jacob Chapman, Flint Kearsley, Jr. (35-6)
Returning champion Smith overcame a bit of familiarity to win his second straight title, as he beat Chapman for the title with a work-man-like 3-1 win.
“The hardest thing is we've wrestled six times, and we both know what both of us are going to do,” Smith said. “So you have to do what you can do.
“I started with a gameplan, and was not that comfortable with it, so I changed it. I said I would do whatever felt right – score more points.”
Champion: Nick Pipes, Warren Woods-Tower, Sr. (48-5)
Decision, 6-1 over Patrick Blommel, Stevensville Lakeshore, Sr. (38-6)
Pipes finally got his medal, and it was a big one.
The four-time Finals qualifier failed to place in the top eight in his first three trips to The Palace, but won a championship on his fourth try.
“I'll take not placing in my first three years to win it now,” Pipes said. “I knew coming in that I qualified three times before this and was always the underdog. But this year being ranked first, and everyone thought I was going to win it, that helped my confidence.”
Champion: Austin Thompson, Marysville, Jr. (52-1)
Decision, 8-7 UTB over Jaedin Sklapsky, Eaton Rapids, Jr. (49-2)
Thompson chose down in the ultimate tiebreaker and escaped Sklapsky for an 8-7 win.
“A year ago I wouldn't have chosen down,” said Thompson, who is in his first year at Marysville. “I wasn't very good on the mat, but I've made a lot of improvements on the mat since I've moved to Marysville.”
Champion: Austin Melton, DeWitt, Soph. (48-3)
Major Decision, 13-4 over Collin Lieber, Croswell-Lexington, Fr. (50-2)
The gameplan was simple Melton.
Score, and score early, and that is exactly what he did in winning the 135-pound championship.
A takedown and a near-fall in the first period turned a five-point early lead into a 13-3 win and a title.
“My coaches just told me to do what I've been doing every match, which is to take it to him,” Melton said. “To score as much points as possible, so that I can get up as much as you can.”
Champion: Steve Bleise, Chelsea, Sr. (49-0)
Decision, 12-5 over Mark Bozzo St. Johns, Sr. (38-8)
Last year Bleise was beaten in the Finals by a St. Johns wrestler, Logan Massa. But not this year.
Bleise had a phrase running through his head as he ran to the mat for the 145-pound title match against Bozzo.
“I told myself going out to the mat, I wasn't going to take second again,” Bleise said. “That really got my mindset going. I couldn't imagine coming off that mat not winning again.”
Champion: Logan Massa, St. Johns, Jr. (51-0)
Fall, 1:56 over Dillon Ellsworth, Lapeer East, Jr. (58-3)
Massa said it helps his psyche to have his brother on the side of the mat for his big matches.
And why not when your brother is a four-time undefeated champion, Taylor Massa.
It's helped two years in a row now, as Logan Massa won his second straight MHSAA championship with his brother in his corner.
“It's awesome to have him in my corner,” Logan Massa said. “It is really cool that (St. Johns coach Derek Phillips) lets me do it. It makes you feel more comfortable having him in my corner.”
Champion: Logan Ritchie, New Boston Huron, Jr. (57-2)
Decision, 2-1 over Tobias Barnes, Romulus Summit Academy, Sr. (56-2)
Ritchie kept the pressure on Barnes, and it paid off with a title.
Ritchie was awarded a penalty point late in the third period that allowed him to beat Barnes 2-1.
“I knew he liked to back up in space, and I just kept keeping the pressure on,” Ritchie said. “I know this time of the year they will call stalling. Maybe not in Districts, but they will down here.”
Champion: Max Dean, Lowell, Soph. (34-2)
Decision, 14-8 over Devon Pingel, North Branch, Soph. (55-2)
It was a battle of two super sophomores in the 171-pound title match, as Dean got the best of Pingel 14-8.
It was Dean's first MHSAA championship, while Pingel now has a runner-up finish to go with his title from 2013.
“I have a lot of respect for Devon Pingel,” Dean said. “He is always on the attack, and he is always coming. I got a little broken down last (period), but that is a credit to him. Fortunately, I built a little bit of a lead and was able to counter.”
Dean built a 8-2 lead and held on for the win.
Champion: Angus Arthur, St. Johns, Jr. (47-0)
Decision, 5-2 over Garett Stehley, Lowell, Sr. (31-2)
Two years ago, Arthur and Stehley were teammates on the Lowell wrestling team. Saturday they were opponents trying to win the 189-pound title.
And in a match that came down to the wire, Arthur hung on for a 3-2 win to win his second straight title.
Stehley was runner-up for the second straight year.
“It's the best feeling in the world,” Arthur said. “I know Garett is a hard wrestler, and this is his second year (he has taken second), so I knew he would come out strong. … I just kept on my attacks.”
Champion: Josh Colegrove, Lowell, Jr. (35-1)
Fall, 1:50 over Jacob Alarie, Bay City Western, Sr. (45-7)
Last year, Colegrove missed the Finals, recovering from surgery on an injured knee he suffered in football.
So when he won the title at 215 pounds with a pin over Alarie, he let out a huge yell and jumped into his coaches’ arms.
“This feels awesome; all my hard work to get back is paying off,” Colegrove said.
Colegrove also pointed to the sky in his celebration.
“My grandpa (Bill Colegrove) passed away a couple of years ago, after my freshman year,” Colegrove said. “I won this for him, because he was a big part of my life. He was always there for me.”
Champion: Chris Hendricks, Fruitport, Sr. (45-1)
Decision, 6-3 over Preston Pelham, Tecumseh, Sr. (55-2)
Fruitport has another heavyweight champion.
Hendricks accomplished that by beating Pelham 6-3 in a hard-fought battle of athletic 285-pounders.
From 1994-97, Matt Brink won three MHSAA titles for the school in the heavyweight division.
“All the work I put in, it's paying off now,” Hendricks said. “All the people that have come up to work with me, former champions, my coaches, my workout partners, I wouldn't have done this without all of them. I owe this all to them.”
PHOTO: (Top) St. Johns' Zac Hall was among flag bearers during the grand march before Saturday's MHSAA Individual Finals. (Middle) Hall's hand is raised as he finishes his fourth title. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)
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.)