The Bedford High School wrestling program had seven individual placewinners at the Michigan state meet.
The Mules also won the team title the week before.
Which was bigger?
The team's coach, Dennis Brighton, was quick to answer. “If you ask the kids, to the letter they'd say they'd rather be team champions,” he said. “When our kids from past years come back, they look up at the banners [from past champions] and say, `I was a part of this one,' or `I was a part of that one.'”
Don't believe it? Then listen to the wrestlers who did both.
The typical answer was similar to the one from senior Greg Brescol, who placed third in the Michigan individual meet at 140 pounds. Which was bigger? “The team [title], by far,” he said. “I waited my whole life to wrestle in the state team meet. That has always been most important. [Placing third] at the individual meet was a nice add-on.”
Troy Lusky, a senior who placed fifth in the state at 171, felt the same way. “Winning the team state [title] is [more important],” he said. “We work more as a team, and that's where we concentrate. Whatever you do as an individual is a bonus.”
Still don't believe it? Then how about the words of Brad Grosteffon, a senior who placed eighth in the state at 140 pounds. “My goal was to make individual [state tournament], and placing there was really cool,” he said. “But winning [the] team [title] is something I'll never forget. Winning the team state title is cool, and the thing is everyone works for that title.”
See? The Bedford program turns out a quantity of quality wrestlers, but those wrestlers all have the same goal: bringing a state team title back home.
They've been very successful in doing just that. This year's crown was the 11th in school history and the fourth since Michigan created the dual-match format in 1987.
“Probably our biggest advantage is that our team's No. 1 goal is to be state team champs,” Brighton said. “In fact, we're trying to get our kids to realize they can be team champs and individual champs at the same time.
“We pride ourselves in the fact that we put 14 good kids out on the mat - one in each weight class.”
Bedford claimed its team title with three victories at Kellogg Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich., March 2-3. The Mules stomped Detroit Catholic Central 53-15 in Friday's quarterfinals, then beat Grandville 36-24 in Saturday morning's semifinals to set up a championship match with Davison, the defending state champ.
Brighton made three adjustments in the Bedford lineup for the championship meeting, and they all provided dividends. One was at 103, when Brighton's son Dennis Brighton Jr. wrestled for the first time all season. He suffered a 29-12 technical fall to Paul Donahoe, and despite the defeat the Mules got an emotional lift.
“Every match [in a dual match] is really important,” the coach said. “Dennis had stitches in his foot from an injury that had kept him from wrestling all season, but he told me, `This guy can't pin me - I can save us a point.' He didn't get pinned, and what a lift the team felt.”
The Mules fell behind 8-0 after losing a decision at 112, which set up the match involving the coach's second lineup change, Chad Ditty at 119. Ditty scored a pin in his match and Bedford got back into the meet, both on the scoreboard and emotionally.
“Chad Ditty was hurt all year,” Brighton said. “But when he came off the mat after that match you could see in his face how much joy he took in contributing to this team.”
A pivotal match was at 125, when Kyle Burkett scored a narrow 10-9 win to give Bedford a 9-8 lead. “Kyle's grandfather died shortly before the tournament,” Brighton said. “He was a mess the whole weekend. But he dedicated that last match to his grandfather, and he got a takedown in the final moments to win.
“The kid he faced had beaten him twice and was a regional champ. It was a huge win.”
Back-to-back pins by Davison wrestlers made short work of Bedford's lead, giving Davison a 20-9 advantage heading into Brescol's match at 140. Brescol posted a technical fall and Josiah Boyer followed with a pin at 145 to get the Mules back into the match, 20-17.
Travis Lusky lost a close match at 152, but Justin Zink came back with a pin at 160 to tie the score at 23-23. Then Troy Lusky lost in a close battle at 171 and the pressure fell squarely on Joe Kay.
Kay, a senior who did not advance past the district meet, was facing regional champ Adam Wilmoth. What's more, Kay had to cut weight from his usual 215 pounds to face Wilmoth at 189.
Kay responded, posting a crucial 8-4 victory over Wilmoth to retie the score at 26-26.
For many of the Bedford's wrestlers, Kay's victory will forever remain their best memory of the state title.
“When Joe lost his last match in the district meet, he looked so down and out,” Troy Lusky said.
“But when he beat their regional champ, we wanted to win [the team title] so he could have that glory.”
Zink said Kay's victory was clearly the turning point. “When Joe Kay came off the mat, we knew we would win,” Zink said. “He came off the mat all emotional. He did his job - he did more than we expected to help us win.”
Clint Salisbury pinned his opponent at 215 to give Bedford the lead and, as calculations later proved, the victory.
But the Mules didn't know that at the time, which allowed one more hero to shine.
“I told [heavyweight] Rick Nieman that he was going to wrestle,” Brighton said. “I told him that I had confidence in him. All week long I told him he was practicing to win a state title. You could see him respond in the practice room.”
Nieman responded on the mats, too, pinning his opponent just 26 seconds into the final match to secure the state title with a 38-26 win.
The final score seems like a rout, right? Hardly. Had the heavyweight match resulted in a pin for Davison, the match would have been tied at 32.
And afterwards the Mules calculated that they still would have won the title - after six tiebreakers.
“We've had some meets where we've won 48-6 and looks like a blowout,” Brighton said.
“But each individual match was a 4-3 or 7-6 decision or something close. It looks as if we blew them out, but the matches within the meet tell the real story.”
Brighton was happy to see this year's group of seniors reach its goal of a state team title. “[Last year] we graduated five seniors who won 100 matches in their careers and we had 10 state qualifiers,” Brighton said.
“We were 29-1 and made it to the state team semifinals. But we lost, and the kids felt we were unsuccessful because we didn't win it all.”
But Brighton wasn't worried despite the losses because he knew the talent that was returning this season.
“We have good kids who are willing to wait until their senior year to have a chance,” he said.
“Dan Davis [at 130] was a backup as a junior who finished third in the state this year. Troy Lusky was a reserve last year who finished fifth in the state this year. Travis Lusky was a reserve last year who was a state qualifier this year,” Brighton said.
“Our kids are willing to put out the effort and wait for the results. As a coach that makes you feel good. And we're teaching kids about life: you have to plug at it and put the work in and then you'll have success.”
That success is something the wrestling fans at Bedford have come to expect - and have embraced.
“[The success of] this team is big to this school, and big to this community,” Brighton said.
“We have big crowds that make our matches exciting. We had 780 kids absent from school on Friday to be at the state tournament. `We knew they weren't all there, but a lot of them were. And our fans were great.”
Brighton prefers the Michigan method of holding a team tournament to Ohio's style of calling the school that scores the most points in the state's individual tournament the champ.
“In the team tournament every one of your kids performs,” he said. “I like it. And when we bring 700-800 fans and they're screaming and it's one-on-one on the mats, I really like it.”
But when his Bedford wrestling team commits to winning a state team title and then pulls it off as this year's team did, then Brighton likes it most of all.