By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
AUBURN HILLS – St. Johns senior Ian Parker could not help but notice what was going on around him Saturday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals had turned into a tournament of upsets, as many returning champions, and a few multiple champions like Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Devin Schroder, Gaylord's Dom LaJoie and Lowell's Lucas Hall, all went down to defeat.
For Schroder, he lost a chance at making history, failing to win his fourth straight title and becoming just the 22nd wrestler to accomplish that feat.
So Parker, also a returning champion, walked onto the mat for his 140-pond championship match with Ortonville-Brandon's Bryan LaVearn a little nervous. And why not? LaVearn pinned former champ Zeth Dean of Lowell on Friday night in their Semifinal.
But Parker buckled down, wrestled his match, and beat the game LaVearn 6-2 to win his second title.
"I was a lot more nervous going into this match, because it was my final match, and there had been a lot of upsets in this tournament," Parker said. "It kind of gets in your head a little bit, but I felt like I calmed it down and did what I had to do to get it done."
Champion: Corey Gamet, Parma Western, Fr. (15-1)
Decision, 3-2, over Chaise Mayer, Warren Woods Tower, Fr. (50-7)
Gamet had a difficult first year of high school wrestling, dealing with an injured knee that limited his season to just 16 matches.
But the final four of those matches were great, as he won an MHSAA title at 103 with a 3-2 win over fellow freshman Mayer.
"I had to keep my confidence because I missed a lot of practices," Gamet said. "I knew I just had to win the match."
Champion: Elijuh Weaver, Warren Woods Tower, Jr. (58-1)
Decision, 5-4, over Branson Proudlock, Gibraltar Carlson, Soph. (51-2)
There would be no second place for Weaver again.
A runner-up last year, Weaver won his title this year with a hard-fought 5-4 win over talented sophomore Proudlock.
"I was thinking I can't lose again, I can't repeat what happened last year," Weaver said. "My friends motivated me by telling me I can't be a runner-up again."
Champion: Julian Saldana, Melvindale, Sr. (58-1)
Decision, 4-3, over Dom LaJoie, Gaylord, Jr. (61-1)
Saldana may have been as shocked as everyone else in The Palace on Saturday. After all, he had just upset a two-time reigning champion.
The win caused the large crowd at The Palace to gasp, as LaJoie went down to defeat for the first time at the MHSAA Finals.
"I had to do something; I'm not really sure what exactly I did," Saldana said. "All I know is it worked, and I beat a two-time state champion."
Champion: Drew Marten, Tecumseh, Jr. (53-1)
Decision, 10-4, over Lucas Hall, Lowell, Sr. (31-1)
Just as the crowd was settling down at the Division 2 end of The Palace, Marten put fans back on their feet as he beat two-time champion Hall, 10-4.
It was a tough win for Marten, as he explained that he and Hall are close friends. But was glad to do it for his school and wrestling program.
"He is my best friend, so that was tough," Marten said. "But I hope this will motivate our program and create a chain reaction for Tecumseh."
Champion: Mike Bergmooser, Carleton Airport, Sr. (50-3)
Fall, 3:58, over Jon Marten, Gaylord, Sr., (58-4)
Better late than never for Bergmooser.
He had struggled at the Finals before, but this past weekend won four matches to win his first title.
"I never won a match down here before. I was 0-6," Bergmooser said. "But it felt so good to finally get a win and go out with a bang."
Champion: Nathan Ellis, Goodrich, Sr. (52-3)
Decision, 5-2, over Trent Lashuay, St. Johns, Jr. (44-11)
When two wrestlers are evenly matched, it's usually the one who pushes himself to the limit who picks up the victory.
Ellis wrestled a full six minutes and came away with a tight 5-2 win.
"Going into the third period, I knew I just had to push the pace," Ellis said. "If I did that, I knew that it would be in my favor, and I would come out on top."
Champion: Austin Melton, DeWitt, Sr. (55-1)
Major decision, 14-6, over Dustin Gross, Dearborn Heights Annapolis, Soph. (55-4)
Sometimes a heart-breaking loss in a championship match can be just the motivation to help achieve a title the next year.
That's what happened Melton, as he lost a tough match in the Finals to Marysville's Austin Thompson a year ago, only to come back and win this year by major decision.
"It felt great to go out on top," Melton said. "I have been working hard all year long. It feels awesome because last year it slipped away, but now that I finally got it … it feels awesome."
Champion: Ameer Munassar, Melvindale, Sr. (52-1)
Decision, 7-5 OT, over Brandon Garcia, Riverview, Sr. (54-1)
Losing in Regional competition can be tough. It affects your seed and placement when it comes to the Finals.
But coming back and avenging that loss in the Finals can be even sweeter, as Munassar felt Saturday night avenging his only defeat by beating Garcia.
“I lost to him in overtime at Regionals, and it motivated me so much more coming into the State Finals," Munassar said. "To win here is so great."
Champion: Deirrien Perkins, Warren Lincoln, Sr. (41-1)
Decision, 3-1, over Connor Charping, Trenton, Jr. (55-2)
Wrestling coaches always preach wrestle to the final whistle. They always say you never know what can happen, and that a match is never done until that final whistle.
Perkins did just that, and scored a takedown with 10 seconds to go in the 160-pound championship match to beat Charping 3-1.
“He wasn't ready for it (the takedown). I knew I had to go, and I just went for it," Perkins said. "I capitalized on that moment, got (the takedown) and held on for dear life."
Champion: Jelani Embree, Warren Lincoln, Jr. (47-0)
Decision, 4-1, over Danny Kruse, Lowell, Sr. (36-3)
An injured Embree is no easy opponent to wrestle. A healthy one can be downright impossible to face.
The Warren Lincoln junior proved that this year, completing an undefeated season with a hard-fought 4-1 win over Kruse.
"This year it was a little bit different, because both my knees were actually healthy," Embree said. "I was able to train a lot harder, and it helped me finally come out on top."
Champion: Max Dean, Lowell, Sr. (37-0)
Decision, 9-2, over Brad Wilton, Mason, Jr. (45-3)
Dean won an MHSAA championship as a sophomore, but was unable to defend that title last year thanks to an injured wrist suffered during his junior football season.
So it was that much sweeter for him to come back as a senior and finish the task, winning his second championship with a workmanlike 9-2 decision.
"To me, this means a lot," said Dean, who will be wrestling at Cornell next year. "I was heart-broken last year not being able to compete, having that privilege to walk on to the mat and go to war. I really missed that, and it was definitely tough. But it is really satisfying to come back and win this year."
Champion: Landon Pelham, Tecumseh, Sr. (53-0)
Decision, 9-2, over Eli Boulton, Lowell, Jr. (29-14)
There is an MHSAA championship in the Pelham household now.
Two years after watching his older brother Preston Pelham lose in the heavyweight Finals, Landon Pelham won the family's first title.
"I got some redemption for my bother. It has all been our goal to be state champs," Landon Pelham said. "He wanted more for me than I could have ever wanted it for myself."
Champion: Isaiah Espinoza, Adrian, Sr. (47-1)
Decision, 1-0, over Sam Benson, Mason, Sr. (36-6)
Espinoza takes nothing for granted in wrestling. He knows how brutal the sport can be, both physically and mentally.
The grind of a season can take it out of your body. And a loss in a championship match can wear on the mind for a long time.
That happened last year when Espinoza fell in the Finals at heavyweight and had to wait a full year for redemption, which he got Saturday night.
"I knew I had to make it back, and my coaches gave me a process to get better" Espinoza said. "They expected me to push myself harder and harder. It was a grind, I loved it and it paid off."
The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTO: St. Johns’ Ian Parker wins his Semifinal match Friday to earn a berth in Saturday’s Final, which he also won to repeat as a Division 2 champ. (Photo by Michelle Campbell.)
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.)