By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
AUBURN HILLS – Adam Coon attended the MHSAA Individual Finals for the first time as a seventh grader, the son of a successful coach who knew what it took to grow a champion.
And Adam hoped to become one too. But he really wanted to know what it took to become the wrestler who carried the American flag during the athletes’ Grand March before the matches began.
“I told him the guys up there are the best in the state. So you’re probably going to have to be a four-timer,” Fowlerville coach Dan Coon recalled. “You better show yourself that you’re a four-timer and worthy to carry the American flag.”
Adam Coon did carry the flag into The Palace of Auburn Hills before Saturday’s Individual Finals. And only a few minutes later, he became just the 17th MHSAA wrestler to finish his high school career with a championship won every season.
Coon pinned Eaton Rapids senior Trent Hurd in 1:13 to win the championship at 285 pounds and finish this winter 55-0. He pinned every opponent he faced this season, and ended with a career record of 211-3 – with a 194-match winning streak dating to his freshman year that ranks as seventh-longest in MHSAA history.
All four of Coon’s championships came at either 285 or 215 pounds, making him also the first of that elite group to win his four at the heaviest weights.
Carrying in the flag was “a dream comes true.” But winning the titles was pretty great too.
“Since I got that first one, I was going to see if I could get the fourth,” Coon said. “I just got the opportunity, and I took advantage of it. Praise God, I got the fourth.”
Dan Coon has been the one to keep Adam grounded, especially with pressure mounting this season. Before they took the mat Saturday, Dad reminded son of something he’d heard: “The sun will always rise tomorrow. Just a whole lot brighter when you win.”
Adam’s other childhood dream had been to get a lot closer to seeing what that bright sun looks like. He’ll study aerospace engineering while wrestling at the University of Michigan, and has been set on designing a spacecraft to accommodate taller astronauts since finding out as a child that he’d probably end up too sizable to make the trip.
Dan is looking forward to watching what his son will accomplish next, be it on the mat or beyond while using the lessons he learned during these championship runs.
“Is he going to stop wrestling? No. It will never leave him now,” Dan Coon said. “He’s always going to be a wrestler.”
Eaton Rapids’ Hurd finished 43-12. Click for full results, and read below for recaps of each championship match and comments from all the winners.
Champion: Joe Garcia, Adrian, Jr. (31-1)
Fall, 2:53, over Ian Parker, St. Johns, Fr. (48-3)
Garcia was the MHSAA runner-up in 2011. He then came in fifth at his weight in 2012 – but didn’t get that longed-for chance to return to the championship match and come away with a win.
Until Saturday. An offseason of increased preparation and conditioning and a switch in strategy from that freshman Final gave him the edge to win his first MHSAA title.
“It lets me know my hard work paid off,” Garcia said. “My freshman year, I was more focused on defense. And this year, I focused more on the attack. I didn’t stop moving.”
Champion: Mason Smith, Clio, Soph. (55-4)
Fall, 3:30, over Zeth Dean, Lowell, Fr. (40-6)
Smith felt pretty good about his chances of coming into his first season, 2011-12, and winning an MHSAA championship. And he nearly got that opportunity, before finishing fourth at 103 pounds.
Now, thanks to some push by his coaches, he feels set up to make a run at finishing with three titles instead.
“Last year, I was really lazy. I didn’t want to do anything. I thought I’d just win,” Smith said. “My coach came at me pretty hard, all of them. None of them let me just sit around and do nothing like I did last year.
“(Now,) I’m going to come back hard and go for it.”
Champion: Bailey Jack, Lowell, Jr. (39-8)
Decision, 6-4, over Dean Somers, Lapeer West, Sr. (46-2)
Only 56 wrestlers in Michigan can say they finished the season with an Individual Finals win. And Jack will take it, especially coming off the disappointment of his Red Arrows losing to St. Johns in the Team Final a week ago.
Jack offered praise for Somers, a runner-up in 2012 – “He’s tough everywhere. You don’t make it to the Finals being a sissy,” – and thankful for the jumpstart he received to prepare for next winter.
“It’s a great bounce-back, morally, for me,” Jack said. “Now I can go into the offseason working just as hard as I did this year.”
Champion: Zac Hall, St. Johns, Jr. (48-0)
Technical Fall, 23-8, over JacQuan Moore, St. Clair Shores Lakeshore, Sr. (44-4)
Over the course of just a few minutes Saturday, Zac Hall put himself on the cusp of making some incredible history next season.
Not only will Hall be shooting to become the 18th wrestler to win four MHSAA championships. He’ll also try to become perhaps only the second (more research to come) to win four individual titles and wrestle for four team champions as well.
Hall had previously won his individual titles at 112 and 103. Davison’s Brent Metcalf won individual titles from 2002-05 and was on team champions as well all four seasons.
“One kid’s ever done it, so that’s a pretty incredible class to be put with,” Hall said. “(But) you get here at the Palace, anything can happen. … You’ve just got to be smart, keep your head.
“I had three matches where I thought I was going to pin the kid. Kids fight at another level when you get here. They don’t get easier.”
Champion: Jacob Schmitt, St. Johns, Sr. (51-0)
Fall, 0:47, Christian Schoenherr, Bay City Western, Soph. (42-8)
Schmitt admitted his final high school season flew by this winter. He’ll continue to wrestle at the college level – for Northwestern – but first has finished a legacy that stacks up with the best.
He capped the weekend with his third MHSAA individual title – he also won 103 in 2010 and 125 last season – to go with four team championships. Schmitt also was runner-up at 112 as a sophomore.
“It went quick this year, but I’m happy with the way I went out. With a pin in the first period, I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I would say (this season) started out rough for us, with those losses. (St. Johns finished 22-4). But we kept it together as a team, pulled through at the end, great teammates pushing each other all the time.”
Champion: Logan Massa, St. Johns, Soph. (42-2)
Fall, 2:45, over Steve Bleise, Chelsea, Jr. (45-1)
Massa knew something about competing in an MHSAA Final – he finished runner-up at 119 last season. But the coach in his corner knew a little bit more.
Brother Taylor Massa returned to The Palace to sit in Logan’s corner, a year after the former finished his high school career as the 16th to win four MHSAA titles.
“He’s knows the environment real well. He helps me out a lot,” Logan said.
“I wasn’t going to let (last year) happen again. I trained harder, and I was just going to train as hard as I could until I got it.”
Champion: Kyle Simaz, Allegan, Jr. (61-1)
Major Decision, 22-13, over Adam Nichols, Lapeer West, Sr. (50-5)
“We got one folks; good deal,” a relieved Simaz said after capping his third MHSAA Finals appearance with his first win.
Simaz had finished runner-up at 130 pounds last season and at 119 in 2011. And not long into Saturday’s championship match, Nichols nearly pinned him.
But by staying on his feet – Simaz’s strength – he turned the tide of the match quickly in his favor.
“I was really disappointed to start the match off like that. That’s a bad note. But luckily we came though that and pulled off a victory,” Simaz said.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to get one of these, so I’m very relieved. I feel like a lot of stuff came off my shoulders.”
Champion: Ben Whitford, St. Johns, Sr. (37-0)
Technical Fall, 22-7, over Casey Burandt, Niles, Sr. (31-2)
Whitford also celebrated winning a fourth state-level championship Saturday. He clinched his second MHSAA title to go with his championship last season at 140 and two he won while living in Illinois as a freshman and sophomore.
He keeps up with some friends he wrestled with while in Illinois. But he’s definitely a Michigan guy now, and signed to join U-M next season.
“It’s a weird feeling that it’s all over,” Whitford said. “For the last two years, I don’t think I would’ve improved more, had better friends, or been able to do the things we’ve done without the guys around me. And I’m just proud to be back in St. Johns.”
Champion: Josh Pennell, St. Johns, Sr. (40-0)
Fall, 1:44, over Fritzel Findeisen, Niles, Sr. (49-6)
Pennell has been a significant part of St. Johns’ program through all four team championships, and finished third individually the last two seasons after placing second at 119 as a freshman.
But the Michigan State recruit felt like it was inevitable that like many of his teammates, he’d get an individual title too. And in his final high school match, he made that hope come true.
“It’s long overdue, I felt like. And what a better year than senior year,” Pennell said. “I wasn’t going to stop until I had a state title.
“I thought about (the last few years) a lot. I was able to come back and wrestle and win my match for third. Those were all very close matches, and all I thought about was winning it and winning those close matches.”
Champion: Devon Pingel, North Branch, Fr. (40-3)
Decision, 10-5, over Jordan Sullivan, Coopersville, Sr. (39-3)
Pingel explained that he’d wrestled on a similarly large stage before –prior to high school, when he won a tournament in Tulsa, Okla.
But he was excited about the opportunities that could come with finishing his first trip to The Palace with an MHSAA title as a freshman.
“I learned to push myself a lot harder,” Pingel said. “I wanted to be a four-time state champ. I got a start to it.”
Champion: Angus Arthur, St. Johns, Soph. (46-3)
Decision, 5-2, over Brett Dempsey, Mattawan, Sr. (55-1)
It’s fair to say Arthur, for one of the few times this season, was the underdog in his championship match. Dempsey finished third at 171 in 2012 and hadn't lost this winter.
But it’s been a fun two weeks for the Redwings, given their team title won in Battle Creek. And Arthur felt confidence in the preparation he’d received facing some of the toughest teams in the state this season.
“I felt like I was (the underdog). (But) I didn't really look at the record,” he said. “I knew I could win, and I just went out there.”
Champion: Payne Hayden, St. Johns, Sr. (45-1)
11-9, Decision, over Garett Stehley, Lowell, Jr. (30-1)
For once, Hayden said, he felt “great” at the end of an MHSAA Finals.
He’d had plenty of success before, making the Semifinals his first two seasons and finishing runner-up at 215 a year ago. But ending number one was an entirely different experience.
“Every year, I’ve had seven losses no matter what age. (But) I’ve always been right at the top of the podium,” Hayden said. “It feels good right now to finally get that chip off my shoulder.”
Hayden finished undefeated in Michigan this winter. His lone loss came to Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward’s Domenic Abounader, who he’ll wrestle with next season at U-M.
Champion: Brian Moran, Fowlerville, Sr. (56-0)
Decision, 11-5, over Taylor Kornoely, Lowell, Sr. (36-1)
The unfortunate circumstance of Saturday’s final Division 2 match was that one senior was going to finish his final season with a loss and just shy of winning his first MHSAA title.
Moran led 6-4 with a period remaining before pulling away. And the emotion of the moment wasn’t lost on the Gladiators’ standout, who lost to teammate Adam Coon at this weight in the 2010 championship match and finished fourth at his weight last season.
“Since I’ve been in fourth grade, I’ve put my heart and soul in this sport. And to leave this sport at that type of note, on top, it’s amazing," Moran said. "I’ve been striving for this my whole high school career. I don’t care if it’s a state title. I feel like I just won the Olympics."
PHOTO: Fowlerville senior Adam Coon has his arm raised after winning his fourth MHSAA title Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Click to see more at 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.”
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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.)