By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
Jay Thrush admitted once he bought the new shoes, he knew he was back.
Thrush was a promising wrestler at Farwell High School three years ago, finishing in eighth place as a 171-pound freshman at the 2016 Division 4 Individual Finals. He followed that up with another Finals trip as a sophomore, falling just short of the podium in 2017.
That momentum was stopped last year when the Farwell athletic administration had to cancel the season because of a lack of participation.
"My freshman year six of us went to state and three of us placed, and I thought that was going to help build the program – but it didn't," Thrush said. "I thought people were going to join, but no one did. Wrestling is a hard sport, and it is hard to convince people to go out."
Then a new coach showed up.
Marcus Wilkes, a former Farwell wrestler, was asked to come back to his former school by Farwell baseball coach Josh Higgins to try and get the wrestling program back up and running.
"The last few years I was a manager at Walmart in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and I was sick of working 100 hours a week and I just got married," Wilkes said. "So I ended up quitting and going back to school. Now I go to Ferris and coach."
Higgins did a good sell job to convince the energetic Wilkes to come home.
"I wrestled for Farwell for my first two years in high school, and then I moved to Wisconsin and wrestled the final two years," said Wilkes, who also played baseball in high school. "I lost every match I wrestled my freshman year, but as a senior I finished 32-13 in Wisconsin.
"I did talk to Josh and asked if he needed any help with the baseball team, and he said none this year, but wanted me to come back and coach wrestling. I was hired in the fall and began to recruit kids."
Obviously one of the first Wilkes reached out to was Thrush, but Wilkes admitted he wasn't sure Thrush was all in to come back for his senior season.
"I knew Jay wasn't sure he wanted to wrestle when we started, but he got new shoes a month into the season, and then I knew he was in it for the long haul," Wilkes said.
"Yeah, once I got the new shoes, I was trapped after that," Thrush said.
Luckily for Wilkes, Thrush picked up right where he left off after his sophomore season.
Heading into this past weekend, Thrush had a 25-4 record wrestling at 189 pounds. And he has been a help to Wilkes in the practice room, showing some of the new wrestlers – along with Wilkes – moves the younger athletes can build upon.
"He has been a huge asset," Wilkes said. "He has become a leader. He is teaching techniques that I am rusty at, helping the younger kids improve."
Thrush has been a leader in the classroom too, carrying a 3.5 GPA.
How many kids have Wilkes and Thrush had to work with this year?
"We had 12 to start, but we have lost some during the year," Thrush said. "Wrestling is mentally tough on first-year wrestlers; it takes a while to understand the sport. Experience goes a long way in this sport.
"We have a youth program, and I hope the young guys stay in the sport," he added. "And having a new coach helps."
One of those young wrestlers to build the future around is freshman Chase Burchette, who has won more than 20 matches this season at 160 pounds.
Wilkes is looking forward to the future.
"I'm excited," Wilkes said. "When I set up our schedule I only had four wrestlers. And I set up a somewhat difficult schedule, and with what I've seen, I'm excited for the future. It was good to see where our team stood against same-level teams with limited weight classes, and we have done well. But this year I wanted to concentrate on individual, and next year we will concentrate on team."
Farwell is in Division 3 and starts its MHSAA Tournament with Team Districts on Thursday at Clare High School and Individual Districts on Saturday at Freeland.
PHOTOS: (Top) Jay Thrush is again a mat standout as Farwell brought back its wrestling program this winter. (Middle) As a freshmen in 2016, Thrush wrestled Clinton’s Verneri Korkee at the Finals and took eighth in Division 4 at 171 pounds. (Top photo courtesy of the Farwell athletic department; Finals photo by 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.)