KALAMAZOO — Thirty-two teams, more than 9,000 spectators and 60 to 75 volunteers will converge at Wings Event Center this weekend for the MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals.
Volunteers gathered at the venue Thursday, setting up two of the three arenas and making sure everything was in working order in preparation for Friday’s Quarterfinals and Saturday’s Semifinals and Finals.
And tournament director Mike Garvey – who before retiring last year served as an athletic director for more than two decades at four area high schools, plus led Lawton to the Class D wrestling title in 1990 – can rattle off the details like a tour guide.
“There are 10 warm-up mats in ‘The Valley,’” Garvey pointed out Thursday. “That’s where the teams also weigh in.
“We have four registered MHSAA referees who are going to inspect the kids for skin diseases, which they always do for wrestlers, and weigh them in.
“There’s a doctor who has volunteered because if a referee says no … we say ‘Go see the doc,’ which is nice.”
And that's just the start of the setup that comes with hosting one of the MHSAA’s most popular championship showcases.
The tournament is a collaboration of the MHSAA, Wings Event Center and Discover Kalamazoo, and the event is in its second year of a four-year contract with the facility. Saturday's 3:45 p.m. championship matches will close a three-week team tournament with champions celebrated in four divisions.
Last year’s Finals drew a championship-record attendance of 9,469.
"There’s no way you can miss Wings Event Center right off I-94,” said Dan Hutcheson, assistant director of the MHSAA. “Parking, the facilities. In general, this is a great place for us. Probably the most important thing for us is the people who work here. They’ve been so good to us, especially Rob (Underwood, Wings Event Center general manager) and Melissa (Janecke, special events coordinator).”
Garvey started planning this year’s event the day after last year’s championships finished. He started getting commitments from volunteers in the fall.
Providing memorable experiences for wrestlers, officials and fans are main priorities, and that means covering every detail from weigh-ins to concessions to where teams will stay and parents will park.
Garvey has volunteers who act as liaisons for each team, greeting them, distributing their packets and familiarizing them with the venue.
How does he get so many volunteers?
“I beg,” he said, laughing. “I say that in jest because people are thrilled to be part of this. I emailed all the ADs and wrestling coaches in the area, and they’ve just jumped in.
“Also the Kalamazoo wrestling officials association has jumped in as well, not as referees (but) as volunteers. Chris Furlong, the wrestling coach at Portage Northern, has been invaluable.”
The main action will take place in the stadium, where four mats are showcased on risers.
“It’s like the movie ‘Hoosiers’ when the guy opened the door at Butler and the kids walked in and were awestruck,” Garvey said. “That’s how these kids look, especially for the first time.”
There is more to the tournament than the wrestlers.
Portage Northern softball players are selling programs, and the concession stands in the arena are open.
“Teams can bring in their own food, and we have a place for them to eat (in the area above the third rink),” Garvey said.
Referees have their own space in the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings locker room, and “Portage Northern wrestling moms are setting up something for the refs in the locker room so they can just go back there for their food,” Garvey said.
Taco John’s will cater lunches for the volunteers, which Garvey calls “Garv’s Guys.”
Garvey also selects singers of the national anthem before each round.
South Haven’s Jim McCloughan, who received the Medal of Honor in 2017 for his service in Vietnam, will sing before the Division 2 and 3 Quarterfinals.
Martin junior Aleyca Morey and Loy Norrix sophomore Sierra Ward will perform before the other two divisions on Friday. Saturday’s anthem singers will be Portage Central junior Ciara Williams, Mattawan junior Thomas Lamb and St. Augustine fifth grader Marissa Toweson.
Discover Kalamazoo, a tourist information center, also is involved in the tournament playing a key role in many behind-the-scenes necessities.
“Our office is very engaged with helping place the participating teams and coaches into hotels,” said Greg Ayers, president/CEO of Discover Kalamazoo. “Of the 32 teams, most all of them will have at least one night (and some two nights) in our local hotels.
“While we don't have any specific number(s) regarding the economic impact of the event, we know 32 teams, their fans and others will have impact on area hotels, restaurants, retail, gas stations, etc.”
Ayers anticipates another large crowd this weekend.
“(With) three teams (Schoolcraft, Dowagiac and Niles) in our backyard, we anticipate big crowds to be in attendance supporting their teams,” he said.
Hutcheson, who wrestled at Ferris State University and spent three years at the Olympic training center, can look at the tournament from several vantage points
“When I look at an event like this, I look at it as a past wrestler, as a past coach, as an AD, and as a spectator,” he said.
“I try to think of all the different lenses you have to look through at an event, then we try to do the best we can.”
Wings Event Center has become a “Home of Wrestling,” Underwood said. “They like it, and we like it.
“The convenience off I-94, the great hotels we have around here with more opening, the seats in this venue, the concessions and bathrooms have made it a great location.”
Wings Event Center hosts five MYWAY youth wrestling events a year, and it was through Dave Dean, that organization’s president, that the MHSAA Finals began looking to Kalamazoo.
“My relationship with Dave Dean in MYWAY led me to Dan Hutcheson, and we started our conversations a couple years ago and here we are,” Underwood said. “It’s a great event, and we love having it here.”
Underwood has become a fan and spectator of the event.
“Once you start watching, it’s hard to walk away from it,” he said. “The team event is really neat because of the camaraderie with the wrestlers and the coaches and their following. When you look in the stands and just see color blocking for that team and the support, that’s cool to see.”
“(The MHSAA) does one (tournament) here and (individual championships) at Ford Field, so I guess we’re in good company.”
Garvey said he always wanted to run an MHSAA Finals tournament and jumped at the job when it went to Kalamazoo.
This year is especially special for Garvey.
“One of the neat things for me this year is that Schoolcraft has qualified,” he said “Their coach, Rob Ling, was a Lawton wrestler (with Garvey as coach), and he’s one of my boys.
“It makes me feel very proud. That’s a bonus for me.”
Ayers said more than half the teams are returning to Kalamazoo this year and “those teams and their fans are gaining familiarity with our community (hotels, restaurants, etc.)
“Having high school-aged students in our community provides excellent opportunities to introduce Kalamazoo. It can lead to prospective students for WMU, Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College.”
Garvey said his team is always trying to improve.
“Last year everybody who came to this tournament as participants said it was the best Team Finals ever,” he said. “Being competitors, we want it to be better every year.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) By Thursday evening, Wings Event Center awaited this weekend's MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals. (Middle) Clockwise from left: Lowell's Curt Cummings sets up the clocks. Portage Northern junior Shane Lisk, left, and senior Cameron Migliaccio clean the mats. Wings Event Center special events coordinator Melissa Janecke tapes the mats. Portage Northern senior wrestler Quinten Baughman continues the process of mat cleaning. (Below) Mike Garvey, left, and Rob Underwood. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)
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.)