NILES – Niles Brandywine wrestlers Maddison Ward and Gavin Schoff literally have gone the extra mile to set themselves up for success.
Ward and Schoff, along with their teammates, have traveled many miles this winter competing in some of the more elite weekend tournaments across the state.
The two Bobcats grapplers hope that exposure is enough to push them to the top of the podium at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals in early March at Ford Field.
Both Ward, a junior, and Schoff, a senior, could become the first Brandywine wrestler to win a Finals title since Dean Heath captured the 1992 Class C crown at 275 pounds.
Ward, ranked No. 2 in the state at 170 pounds by MichiganGrappler.com, is 23-1 this season. Her only loss came 5-4 at the Montague Tournament to Romeo’s top-ranked Amarisa Manuel, last season’s runner-up at 155 and the 145 champion in 2021.
Ward comes from a wrestling family. Her older brother Marty Ward, a 2015 Brandywine graduate, was a standout grappler and football player for the Bobcats. It was Marty who influenced Maddison most to give the sport a try.
"My brother wrestled, and I come from a family of wrestlers,” Maddison Ward said. “I'm the only female in my family that showed interest in the sport. My parents were skeptical about it at first, but I wanted to give it a try to see if I could do it as well beginning when I was in seventh grade."
Ward eventually joined Midwest Extreme Wrestling Club, a program affiliated with Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind.
"I really started to improve toward the end of my freshman year when I started hitting more freestyle tournaments. I learned how to be more aggressive, hone in on my skills and (I) started working harder," Ward said.
She is in her third year season competing on Brandywine's varsity team and is one of just two female wrestlers on the squad.
"It's very difficult to get girls to come out for wrestling,” Ward said. “Right now there are only a couple of us girls in the high school program, but there are several participating on the junior high team. But it's been a dream of mine to help grow the interest here and in Southwest Michigan and leave a message that this sport is as big here for females as it is in the bigger cities.”
Ward believes her technique and strength are big keys to her success.
"I feel like my biggest strengths are that I'm a pretty technical wrestler and for a female I have good strength that I'm able to use to my capability," Ward said.
Also a former cross country runner and track & field athlete, Ward does a lot of weight training to help build stamina and endurance. Her success already has generated interest among college coaches.
"Right now I have a lot of interest in Grand Valley State University for wrestling. I feel like their coach (Jake Short) is going to be able to help me a lot with my goals and where I want to eventually end up with wrestling. My end goal is to compete in the Olympics," Ward said.
Ward plans to pursue a career as a physical therapist and become a coach.
"I want to coach younger kids in wrestling working with the MYWAY Program or coaching at the middle school level," Ward said. "I wouldn't mind coaching anyone because I really love it."
The late David Schultz, an American Olympic and World Champion freestyle wrestler, has been a big inspiration to Ward.
"I've read a lot about him and have just always looked up to him because he was a phenomenal and technical wrestler. Looking back at his quotes, it just really helps build me up as a wrestler. I just look up to him for his accomplishments and who he was as a person," Ward said.
Ward looks to qualify for the Individual Finals for a third consecutive year. She finished seventh at 155 her freshman year and third her sophomore season at 145. Being in the higher weight class will make it tougher, but Ward is looking forward to the challenge.
"I was much more of a scrambler at 145. It's a lot different wrestling at 170 where you have to be a lot more physical. You have to know where you're at all the time on the mat and be careful," Ward said. "My experience, mat time and having a lot of confidence in myself are my biggest advantages. I've made a good adjustment this year with my mental preparation, not giving up and really believing in myself. I just have to continue that positive mentality, eating well, lifting and getting the most out of every practice."
Rex Pomranka, Niles Brandywine's head wrestling coach since the 2004-05 season, has been impressed with Ward's interest and work ethic since she joined the Brandywine wrestling program. He believes Ward is very capable of reaching her goal.
"Maddie is kind of young compared to some of the girls that have been wrestling since they were 5 or 6 years old. But she's always asking questions, watching videos, going to camps and competing in offseason freestyle tournaments, Pomranka said. “You've heard of basketball players who are gym rats, well Maddie is a mat rat in wrestling. She quite often comes in before and will stay after practice to work on moves or techniques to make herself better. She doesn't give up, is a hard worker and just goes and goes. A lot of girls Maddie wrestles can't match her strength."
Schoff is aspiring to become a three-time Finals qualifier and placer. He is 34-0, ranked No. 1 in Division 4 at 157 pounds and regarded among the top eight in his weight class across all four divisions. All the wrestlers above Schoff in the power rankings are from Division 1 and Division 2 schools.
In his two other previous Finals appearances, Schoff finished fifth at 152 his sophomore year and third at 157 as a junior. He is expected to reach the 150-career win mark within the next couple weeks.
"My stamina has really improved this season. I used to get gassed in matches. I've done a lot of running and tried to keep up a good pace in practice. I'm pretty strong, and I try to lift a lot," Schoff said.
He’s also played football at Brandywine and was a starter for two years on the offensive and defensive lines (at right guard and nose guard, respectively). He participates in track & field as well, and plans to finish his wrestling career on the high school mat this winter as he will enter the skill trades after high school with hopes of becoming a plumber.
"Playing football helps you with your balance, and it just teaches you a lot of how to be tough. Track helps me with my stamina and staying active," Schoff said.
Schoff hopes those factors help lead him to a Finals title. Pomranka believes the Bobcats' competitive schedule also will benefit his two standout grapplers.
In addition to its Lakeland Conference meets, Brandywine has wrestled in weekend tournaments this season at Montague, Quincy, Hillsdale, Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, East Jackson, Kalamazoo Central and Parchment.
"We want to see the best competition we can and get the best matchups possible that are going to help our kids the most later on this season," Pomranka said.
Schoff is only the third Brandywine wrestler during Pomranka's coaching tenure to record 100 career pins, including 27 victories by pinfall this season.
"Gavin is so flexible, strong and athletic. He can get himself out of all kinds of different positions, including some (ways) you just can't coach,” Pomranka said. “There have been matches where it looks like his opponent will take him down, and next thing you know Gavin has the guy turned over on his back.”
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Maddison Ward, top position, from Niles Brandywine has the upper hand in a dual match at home earlier this season. (2) Niles Brandywine senior Gavin Schoff works out with the heavy ball at a recent Bobcats' wrestling practice. (3) Niles Brandywine junior Maddison Ward, right, stands on the podium after winning the championship in the 170-pound weight class at the Adam H. Provencal Invitational this season at Grand Haven High School. (4) Gavin Schoff, far right, from Niles Brandywine, holds up his bracket after winning the 157-pound weight class at the Shawn Cockrell Invitational at Quincy High School earlier this month. (Top photo by Scott Novak/Leader Publications; workout photo by Scott Hassinger, and awards photos courtesy of the Brandywine wrestling program.)
DETROIT – Romeo wrestling coach Justin Gides was a busy man Saturday afternoon at Ford Field.
He guided sisters Belicia and Kaili Manuel to back-to-back MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals championships on the same mat in the 140- and 145-pound weight classes, respectively.
Sounds like the Manuel pipeline may be far from drying up, too, as Gides noted there are seven Manuel sisters in total.
“I think they’ve got me busy for the next 15 years,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Belicia Manuel, a sophomore, started it off with a tight 8-7 decision over Waterford Kettering senior Emily Medford. It was Belicia Manuel’s first Finals title and made her 23-0 on the season.
Kaili Manuel, a freshman, followed with a 14-4 major decision over Riverview Gabriel Richard junior Rihanna Venegas. That made Kaili’s season record 26-1.
Between the Manuels: Two championships and a combined 49-1 record.
“I was just thinking about my family coming and watching me, and I just really didn’t want to lose in front of them,” smiling Belicia Manuel said.
“Definitely a new experience,” she added. “Having this big crowd watching me is kind of scary, but we pulled through.”
When asked who holds the upper hand in family room tussles, Belicia took the more diplomatic approach and declared a tie.
Kaili has been wrestling since she was in kindergarten, while Belicia picked up the sport in third grade.
“They’re training partners, they work together all the time, every day. They’re always at each other’s mat, they notice the small things,” Gides said. “Honestly, I could probably make them the coach some days – they know so much. They’re so detail-oriented. There will be times I’ll go to yell something and they’re already yelling at their sisters, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do this.’ They’re big students of the game.
“I mean, it’s crazy, man. They’re good kids, they train every day. They’re two of seven of them. There’s seven daughters, they all wrestle. They train year-round – they love it.”
Champion: Madison Nieuwenhuis, Plainwell, Soph. (18-0)
Medical forfeit over Olesya Mullins, St. Louis, Soph. (19-1)
Saturday’s Finals match was easier than last year’s for Nieuwenhuis, now a back-to-back champion, not that she wanted it to happen this way.
“I’m glad that I made it (to the championship bout), but a little sad that I didn’t get to wrestle,” said Nieuwenhuis, who like last year dealt with an injury on the way to winning a title.
In 2023, she had a foot injury. This season, it was a fractured bone in her wrist.
Nieuwenhuis hopes to be fully recovered in time for the World Team Trials.
“I guess just making it to the Finals (is the highlight this season),” she said.
Champion: Natalie Gibson, Remus Chippewa Hills, Jr. (18-2)
Fall, 0:54, over Tricia Pyrzewski, Gladwin, Sr. (42-5)
Pyrzewski had success against Gibson this season, but this time Gibson didn’t even give Pyrzewski time to think.
The bout was over in a hurry. Gibson captured her first championship after finishing runner-up at 105 pounds last season. This was her third Finals trip.
“Honestly, I think I just caught her and we’re super competitive with each other. She’s beat me twice already this year,” Gibson said. “I caught her in a perfect moment and I stuck her – it was super quick.
“We had a game plan and it kind of went with our game plan, but it just turned out a lot more perfect than we planned.”
Gibson has been wrestling for 11 years, picking it up from her older brother’s influence.
She hopes to be right back in the same spot next season.
“Honestly, I’m stunned -- a little bit in disbelief,” Gibson said. “Super proud of all the work and everything that my coaches and I have put in and that they continued to do with the support.
Champion: Nakayla Dawson, Westland John Glenn, Soph. (9-0)
Fall, 2:25, Cheyenne Frank, Oxford, Soph. (15-1)
Some believed that the Finals match at 110 pounds was going to be Dawson vs. Sky Langewicz of Algonac, with Langewicz having won Finals titles the last two years. But Frank earned an 8-4 decision over Langewicz in the Quarterfinals.
Dawson captured the 105-pound championship last season, so bumping up a weight class pushed her a bit.
“I mean, I feel like this year was a little bit more challenging because I bumped up a weight class, but it’s kind of the same,” Dawson said. “Girls, they’re just really flexible and they’re hard to get into turns and pins. But, yeah, it’s pretty much the same.”
Dawson did match up with Langewicz, but it was in the Feb. 18 Regional Final at Birmingham Groves, where Dawson earned an 8-5 decision.
Dawson made sure to keep the right mindset and stay focused in the Final. Her career goals are clear.
“Trying to go all four (years of winning championships),” she said.
Champion: Sunni LaFond, Gaylord, Jr. (30-6)
Decision, 13-9, over Gracey Barry, Grand Haven, Jr. (34-2)
LaFond broke through after runner-up finishes as a freshman and sophomore, but it was far from easy. She seemed to be in control of her Finals match Saturday, but Barry battled to the very end and made it very interesting.
“It was really intense. I did not think that it was going to be that tough to win it, but it was worth it in the end,” said LaFond, who absorbed two bloody noses in the bout.
After the match was over, LaFond ran up the stairs of the press risers and gave her mom a hug in the front row of stands. Moments later, she was greeted by well-wishers and wrestlers with whom she’s familiar.
“I didn’t feel nervous before, I just felt like it’s just another tournament, it’s not anything special,” she said. “I mean, yeah, it’s states, but it definitely feels really good.”
Champion: Lola Barkby, Sturgis, Jr. (17-3)
Decision, 4-2, over Faith Burgess, Grand Blanc, Jr. (25-1)
Barkby finished runner-up as a freshman and took fourth as a sophomore, but she said that different training and changing up her style yielded the results she was seeking.
You might say she kept her nose to the grindstone, so to speak. She had marks on her face to prove it.
“I’m not too happy about the mat burn on my face, but it’s a part of it,” Barkby said with a smile.
When Barkby placed second in 2022, she lost to eventual four-time state champion Angelina Pena in the 120-pound weight class.
This time, it was Barkby’s turn to leave the mat a champ.
“I mean, this is the best season that I’ve had and my team, we competed really well as a team this year,” Barkby said.
Champion: Tyler Swanigan, South Lyon East, Sr. (12-1)
Fall, 3:45, over Jamie Cook, DeWitt, Jr. (30-3)
Swanigan collected her second championship in three years. Previous experience seemed to pay off.
“My sophomore year was my first year competing at high school sports, so nerves were a lot higher coming into today being in the Finals three years in a row,” Swanigan said.
For the Finals match, Swanigan said that getting a lot of sleep, eating healthy, and drinking a lot of water helped.
She’s certainly poured enough time into it.
“I’m very happy this is the way I ended my high school career,” Swanigan said.
Champion: Angelina Pena, Milan, Sr. (16-2)
Fall, 3:25, Isabella Cepak, South Lyon East, Jr. (10-2)
Pena won a fourth-straight championship, including the third in a row since the MHSAA added a girls division for postseason competition. She captured the 120-pound title as a sophomore and 130-pound championship as a junior.
“I mean, it’s similar (to the other three) in the fact that I won and I held the same amount of respect for all of my opponents regardless of how they lose,” Pena said. “I think it’s different (in how) it gets harder every year, you know. All the girls are getting better, they’re training all year, and you’ve just got to keep training and keep putting in more work than they are.”
Pena is proud of the growth of girls wrestling at the high school and lower levels.
She said that her Milan coach, Adam Cabarello, launched a youth program at the school and he’s invited her to come to his practices.
“The more I come in, the more girls I see. We’ve got, like, seven or eight girls in there right now. It’s really nice to be able to mentor,” Pena said. “I think it’s just going up from here. Exponentially, we’ve already seen a giant increase in the amount of girls that are joining wrestling or making it to Ford Field. I think it’s great.”
Champion: Margaret Buurma, Fowlerville, Jr. (24-1)
Major Decision, 11-2, over Paisley Denault, Clarkston, Soph. (28-2)
Buurma is a three-time champion, also achieving the feat at 125 pounds last season and 115 as a freshman.
Former Fowlerville and University of Michigan standout Adam Coon has influenced her career.
“Quite a few times over the summer when we’re training freestyle stuff, he comes in, he works with us, he tells about his journeys through high school and college and then through all the Olympic stuff and World teams,” Buurma said. “He’s somebody who I strive to be like with his success in wrestling, but also his success in the academic field and his success as an overall person.”
Buurma said she felt a little more stress and anxiety coming into the tournament.
“In the end, it’s a wrestling tournament, and we’re here because we like wrestling,” she said. “Winning’s just always a bonus.”
Champion: Maddie Hayden, Caledonia, Soph. (11-0)
Fall, 0:49, Brynn Campbell, Holt, Sr. (30-7)
Hayden defended her title at 155 pounds, but she also overcame obstacles in the form of injuries.
“I think it’s definitely trusting my training. I had a couple of injuries, too, so I was out for a while. That was a big obstacle to overcome, too. I mean, I wanted to repeat, but my goal was also to overcome those obstacles as well,” Hayden said. “So just trusting in my training, trusting in my faith that I was going to be all right and that I could do it again because I did it last year.”
In late December or early January, she broke her fingers. Hayden was back on the mat for a week before she hyperextended her elbow.
The injuries may have seemed like a curse to some, but Hayden took them on as a challenge. They certainly didn’t seem to hinder her performance Saturday.
“Like, going into Regionals and state, I had only been wrestling a week in the past two months,” she said. “It was definitely scary coming in here with not a lot of wrestling, but that was also a fun thing. ‘Let’s see how good I could do off of not a lot of practice.’”
Champion: Maddison Ward, Niles Brandywine, Jr. (37-1)
Fall, 5:48, Heaven Cole, Kalamazoo Loy Norrix, Jr. (17-2)
The bear hug with her coach said it all immediately following Ward’s pinfall.
She summarized it with one word: “Amazing.”
“Like, I’ve been waiting for it for the longest time,” she said.
In her first Finals appearance, Ward pinned her way through the bracket.
“This year made it special because I knew I would be able to make it into the Finals this year, and it’s just exciting to be able to wrestle in the Finals – I’d never done it before,” she said.
Champion: Sabrina Nauss, Brighton, Sr. (9-0)
Fall, 1:35, Gabriella Allen, Marcellus, Sr. (25-3)
Nauss became just the third four-time state champ in Michigan high school girls wrestling history.
In another historical note, two years ago she was the first female to win an Individual Finals match at Ford Field.
“Just a lot of emotions right now. Excited. I’m excited about what’s to come next, but I’m also sad for what I’m leaving behind,” she said. “I’m leaving one of my coaches, who has coached me from the start until the very end. … I’m excited. I’m excited for the future. I’m excited for college, and there’s just so much going on right now.”
Nauss collected the 170-pound title in 2022 and 190-pound crown in 2023 at MHSAA Finals. Her freshman year, she won a championship at the Michigan Wrestling Association state tournament.
She was all business in Saturday’s Final, taking charge and trying to put it away early.
“I mean, I just wanted to come in and get the job done,” she said. “Like I’ve said before, this is a business trip for me. This is my job, so when I come in, I want to come in hard. I want to get the first takedown and I’m trying to score the most points, so coming in with a pin was my ideal for finishing the job.”
Champion: Madasyn Frisbie, Belding, Jr. (6-1)
Sudden Victory, 4-2, over Braelyn Flemming, Spring Lake, Jr. (18-4)
The now two-time champion Frisbie has been through her share of pain on the wrestling mat.
“I’ve had a really tough season because I missed the majority of my season because I dislocated my (right) shoulder,” Frisbie said. “When I got to come back, it was probably the best day of my life.
“And then I went to Regionals and lost in the Regional Finals, and I never want to have that feeling of losing again. I mean, that’s just what drove me. I decided I wasn’t going to lose, so I didn’t.”
PHOTOS (Top) Romeo’s Belicia Manuel, right, takes on Waterford Kettering’s Emily Medford in Saturday’s championship match at 140 pounds. (Middle) Kaili Manuel, right, works to gain control during her 145-pound championship match against Riverview Gabriel Richard’s Rihanna Venegas. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)