Whitehall Pair Making Memorable Marks

March 2, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Reiley Brown has three brothers of his own.

But the returning MHSAA champion wrestler at Whitehall High School said it might be more accurate for this article to include his fellow senior teammate Jwan Britton as a fourth sibling.

“We are the closest thing to brothers,” said Brown of his good friend and daily training partner – referring both to their time together on the Whitehall High mats and also the makeshift mat which Brown has set up in the pole barn behind his house.

“We really go at it and push each other to get better every day. I owe a lot of my success to him.”

Brown, 47-1, is seeking a second straight Division 3 individual championship, this time at 135 pounds, at this weekend’s MHSAA Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

The only thing that would make such a repeat sweeter is if Britton, who is 47-2 and a Regional champion at 140 pounds, could follow right behind him with a Finals championship of his own.

“At this point, it’s really hard to mention Reiley and his accomplishments without talking about Jwan,” said Whitehall coach Cliff Sandee, who is in his 10th year and has guided the Vikings to the Team Semifinals three of the past six.

Rare back-to-back championships for teammates would be a fitting end for Brown and Britton, who have been the backbone of a tremendous four-year run for the Whitehall wrestling program.

As a team, the Vikings achieved all of their goals this winter, including their 10th consecutive Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Wrestling title. Whitehall, which finished 26-2 in duals, won its fourth straight West Michigan Conference and District titles, and then added a Regional championship.

The culmination of this season’s work led last weekend to Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, which hosted the MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals and also happens to be the school where Brown will wrestle next year when he becomes the first Whitehall wrestler to go on to a Division I college program.

It was almost “one and done” at CMU, as things looked mighty bleak against Richmond in Friday’s Quarterfinal match.

Richmond built a seemingly insurmountable 29-9 lead before the Vikings came roaring back to score the final 28 points, winning the final six bouts for an emotional 37-29 win. Whitehall’s victory was significant as Richmond and Dundee have dominated Division 3 team wrestling over the past decade, combining to win eight of the past 10 Team Finals titles.

“That was a huge win for us on a state level, because Richmond is such a great program,” said Sandee. “We want to be at team state every year; that’s the kind of program we want. I have six seniors this year, but we also have our most talented middle school group coming in, so we’re excited.”

Fittingly, unheralded junior Dominick Haynes started the comeback, pinning state-ranked Graham Barton at 130 pounds. That stunning six points led right into the strength of the Vikings’ lineup, with a pin from Brown and a major decision for Britton.

The Vikings dug another big hole in Saturday morning’s Semifinal. But a second miracle comeback was not in the cards against powerful Dundee, which raced out front 27-3 and held on for a 39-18 victory. Dundee then dispatched Remus Chippewa Hills 40-16 in the Final for its ninth team wrestling title and third in the past four years.

However, buddies Brown and Britton certainly got the attention of the Dundee faithful and many other wrestling gurus with big wins near the end of that dual. Brown rallied for a last-minute, 3-2 win over Tylor Orrison at 135, and then Britton used a takedown in the waning seconds to beat Zach Blevins, 4-3, in what could end up a preview of this weekend’s individual title match at 140 pounds.

Whitehall has two other Regional champions in JoJo Dowdell (145) and Hunter Bower (103).

Brown is the best known of the Vikings on the state level, taking second at 103 in his freshman year and third at 119 as a sophomore before breaking through for the 125-pound Division 3 championship as a junior. He comes into this weekend with the pressure of great expectations to go with a 181-12 career record.

“I try to use that pressure as a positive and feed off of it, to prove myself,” said Brown, who plans to study human resources at CMU. “I actually felt way more pressure going into team state, because my match there affects a lot more than just me.” 

Besides, he has always felt right at home on a wrestling mat.

While many kids have basketball hoops in their driveways, how many can say they have their very own wrestling mat – along with an exercise bike and a heater – in a pole barn out back?

“My dad set it up out there when I was going into high school,” said Brown. “I’ve had some great battles out there with Jwan and my brothers over the years. Hopefully that extra work I’ve put in at home will pay off this weekend.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Whitehall's Reiley Brown works to gain control in his match Saturday against Dundee's Tylor Orrison. (Middle) Jwan Britton (right) lines up to start his match against Zach Blevins during the Division 3 Team Semifinal. (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.)