It took a day for Tristan Vance to fully appreciate what he had accomplished.
The Clio senior won the Division 2 189-pound championship Saturday at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals. Quite often, it takes some time before the gravity of the moment sets in. For Vance, that was partially true. But mostly, he was too sore to celebrate in a big way.
“That night, I was happy about it and celebrating about it, but I was so sore,” Vance said. “My back started spasming up right after the match. I was just so sore. I wanted to get home, and I wanted to rest. The next day, I was ecstatic.”
The spasms were nothing new to Vance, but rather a painful reminder of what he had to endure to get to this point. He missed more than half of the season because of them and didn’t return to the mat until the postseason.
While Vance himself wasn’t showing the elation and emotion that comes with overcoming what he did, his coach and father, Tony, certainly was understanding of the achievement.
“All I wanted to do is find my wife in the stands and give her a hug and kiss,” Tony Vance said. “It was the best feeling I think I’ve had since my kids were born. I got excited, and I kind of walked to the middle of the mat looking for her. I didn’t know where she was at, then I saw her waving to me. I climbed the wall and gave her a hug. It was such a struggle for him, and so much for us, too.”
The pain started late in the summer for Tristan, but it stemmed from a surgery he had as a 12-year-old. Back then, he was having back pain that effected the way he was walking. After consulting with multiple doctors, a benign tumor was found on his spine.
“I thought I had cancer, and I thought I was going to die – for like 10 minutes,” he said. “Until my mom was like, ‘That’s not what it is.’ After that, I’ve always been kind of chill, not too worried about things.”
The surgery to remove the tumor was successful, but that wasn’t the end of Tristan’s problems. He said he suffered from nerve damage and sciatica. His muscles were still tight, and he had to undergo rehabilitation for his left hamstring.
Eventually, he improved and blossomed into a star athlete at Clio, playing quarterback and linebacker on the football team and earning all-state honors (eighth place) on the wrestling mat as a junior.
That’s what made things even harder when the back pain returned.
“In middle school, none of that mattered to me,” Tristan said. “This year, it really kind of hit a soft spot. I was really depressed about it. I was kind of sure that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything.”
Tristan thought he had another tumor, but that was quickly ruled out. He was told that the smaller muscles around the hole where the tumor used to be were weakened and never fully recovered. The bigger muscles in his back were overcompensating, causing the spasms.
He decided, however, to play quarterback through the football season, even though he ran the ball a lot in Clio’s read-option offense.
“It got so bad where he couldn’t even run sometimes in games,” Tony Vance said. “He would play until he couldn’t play anymore.”
The motivation for Tristan was to play his final season with his friends on the football team. He did admit, though, that if he felt his wrestling season was truly threatened, he may have stopped.
When wrestling season began, the thought was to take things slow. Tristan returned to the mat in January, but his back acted up again in the New Lothrop tournament, and he was once again forced to sit.
“When I had to stop wrestling, it wasn’t because of the pain. It was because my muscles would contract and spasm, and I wasn’t able to do it physically,” he said. “It hurt my feelings. I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish the season. I had four other guys on the team that ended up going to the state tournament with me, and I was seeing them do well and I was happy to see that, but I wanted to be part of that so bad.”
Tristan helped his teammates in the practice room, though he wasn’t sure if he would be able to compete again. As the postseason drew near, he began working out more and preparing for the possibility. The decision was made to put him into the lineup during the Team District and see how he held up.
“We ended up holding him out as long as we could,” Tony Vance said. “He wrestled (in the Team District) and felt pretty good, so I said, ‘All right, we’ll wrestle you in (Individual) Districts. I was worried, because I didn’t want to have another kid have to sit out, then take him all the way up to Gaylord and enter him into Districts and him not be able to wrestle.”
Tristan entered the District with a 10-2 record. He also entered at 189, despite having wrestled at 171 earlier in the season. He weighed around 180 pounds, and Tony Vance didn’t think adding a large weight cut to the stress already on Tristan’s body was a good idea. The bump didn’t bother Tristan, who was second in the District and first at the Regional.
He entered the Individual Finals as the No. 2 seed. But thanks to having wrestled so few matches, and the presence of undefeated Central Michigan recruit John Shelton of East Grand Rapids on the other half of the bracket, Tristan came in under the radar.
“I had a problem with that last season, where I kind of got in my head a little bit and too full of myself, which really affected me,” he said. “Coming in as an underdog – it wasn’t the most fun way for my last season to be, but it really helped with my mentality coming into the tournament.”
Tristan won handily in his first two matches before running into Fruitport’s Crue Cooper in the semifinals. Cooper was considered by many to be Shelton’s main competition heading into the Finals, but Tristan came away with the 3-1 overtime victory.
“I really wasn’t getting too excited about anything, to be honest,” Tony Vance said of his mindset coming into the tournament. “Me and my wife were just happy that he was able to wrestle again. He won a huge match in the semis. As the match was going, I was like, ‘Man. OK, he’s really looking good.’ After that match was done, I was excited. I thought, whatever happens from here, he’s made a good run. I wasn’t thinking that he was going to win it, I was just thinking that we’d see where it goes (Saturday), and I’ll be able to tell how he’s doing at the end of the first period.”
Tristan was calm as he entered his match against Shelton, even after he was informed right beforehand of Shelton’s credentials.
“I have never wrestled him before, and I have never seen him wrestle before because he’s on the west side of the state,” Tristan said. “My plan was mostly just to get to my tie-ups, get to my offense and do what I do best instead of waiting on what he can do.”
The match was tied at 3 after one period, and Tristan was able to take a 4-3 lead with an escape in the second. In the third period, Shelton chose down, and Tristan built an 8-4 lead thanks to a nearfall and a takedown. An escape and a stalling point put Shelton out of striking distance again, and he threw Tristan in a headlock as the clock was winding down. Tristan was able to get to his stomach, though, preventing the takedown or any back points.
“He has ice in his veins,” Tony Vance said. “He doesn’t have any doubt in himself, but he doesn’t show any emotion. He’s just calm and cool.”
After what could be his final competitive match – Tristan said he’s undecided about his future – he was congratulated by a host of spectators just off the mat, including his teammates and coaches from other schools.
Excited but sore, Tristan calmly walked through it all, not yet fully cognizant of the degree of his remarkable achievement.
“I had a lot of emotions through that time, and I wasn’t really thinking about (going through the injury) too much,” Tristan said. “I was just thinking about what had just happened. Now I’ve realized that I kind of accomplished a lot given my circumstances this year.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Clio’s Tristan Vance works to maintain control in his opening match of the Division 2 Individual Finals against Lansing Waverly’s Demitrius Webb. (Middle) Clio coach – and Tristan’s father – Tony Vance celebrates as Tristan finishes a semifinal win over Fruitport’s Crue Cooper. (Click for more from 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.)