Titans Grow to Tower Over Competition

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

January 19, 2017

WARREN – The year was 1999. Greg Mayer had recently graduated from Central Michigan University and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

After serving as a co-head wrestling coach at Warren Woods Tower in 1998, Pat Threet directed the program alone the following season.

Although they never had met before, Mayer and Threet knew of the other through mutual acquaintances and athletics. They didn’t know it then, but soon they would team together and build a wrestling power in Macomb County from the ground up. Along the way they also would become best friends.

Woods Tower’s wrestling program was struggling when Threet took over. Warren public schools like Lincoln and Fitzgerald were far more competitive and Threet, as a graduate of Woods Tower, made a commitment to himself and the community to get the program to where it could be competitive as well. 

Threet wrestled in high school, but he knew his limitations. He also knew he needed to hire someone with a strong wrestling background, one who would demand excellence.

“I didn’t know Greg, but I knew he was a phenomenal wrestler,” Threet said. “His brother (Jeff) was, too. From day one I told him we’re in this together.”

Mayer was hired as Threet’s assistant in 1999, and the wheels began turning. It took a few years but, finally, in 2004 Woods Tower won a District title. Three years later it won its first Regional. The Titans won another Regional in Division 2 in 2014 and again last season.

This season Mayer, now in charge of the program, returned 13 wrestlers, just four of whom are seniors, and the Titans are looking to take that next step past the Quarterfinal round.

“We were terrible,” Mayer said of his first season with Threet. “When I got there Pat and I had some 20 kids. At the end of the season we had nine, but we had nine hammers.

“Then we started to win some Districts. Pat moved on in 2007. He had other obligations, family and stuff. I’m really grateful to him for giving me that chance.”

Mayer was an MHSAA individual champion wrestler at Lincoln, one of the county’s top programs. In 1994, his senior season, the Abes won the Class A team title with Sam Amine as the head coach and Mayer was the individual champion at 130 pounds.

Mayer enjoyed a successful four-year wrestling career at CMU, one that was highlighted by a fifth-place finish nationally when he was a junior and a seventh-place finish his senior season. 

Upon graduating Mayer, like many 23-year-olds, didn’t have a plan.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to,” he said. “I was doing a camp in Warren and Pat was in his first year (1998) at Woods Tower, and he said to me if you come over I’ll put a good word in for you to get you a teaching position. So I took it and convinced my brother, who was the head coach at Roseville, to coach the youth program.”

Mayer didn’t stop there. He convinced two other Lincoln graduates, Russell Correll and Mike Milunovich, to join his staff. Like the Mayers, Correll and Milunovich were MHSAA Finals placers at Lincoln. Ian Fredlund, a Woods Tower graduate, also is on staff.

In a division dominated by Lowell and St. Johns (each has won four MHSAA team titles over the last eight seasons), Woods Tower is the new kid on the block attempting to disrupt the status quo, and made the Quarterfinals last season as the sixth seed before falling to third-seeded Gaylord 31-26. 

The Titans finished third at the prestigious Detroit Catholic Central Invitational earlier this month. And with all of the experience back, hopes are high.

Among his top wrestlers is sophomore David Stepanian, ranked No. 1 in the 103-pound division by MichiganGrappler.com. At 112 is another sophomore, Chaise Mayer, the coach’s nephew. At 119 is senior Elijuh Weaver, the reigning Division 2 champion at 112 pounds.

Six years ago Woods Tower joined the Macomb Area Conference Red and is the only Division 2 school to compete in the MAC’s top division. Not only did Mayer want his wrestlers facing the best, it’s become a numbers situation within his program.

“We carry almost two full teams,” he said. “Being in the Red guarantees my guys they will wrestle in every (division) meet. We’ve never won the MAC Red and to be honest, that’s not our goal. Our goal is to win a state title. As long as we’re progressing, I’m happy.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Elijuh Weaver, top, works toward flipping his opponent during last season’s Division 2 Quarterfinal match against Gaylord. (Middle) Greg Mayer, left, and Pat Threet from a team photo early in their tenure at Warren Woods Tower. (Below) Mayer directs one of his wrestlers last year at Rose Arena. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

July 25, 2023

ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.“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.

Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season.“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.)