Division 1 wrestling is packed top to bottom this season with 12 of the 14 state champions returning for another shot at glory.
“It’s an unbelievable year for Michigan wrestling in Division 1; I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Todd Cheney, head coach at defending team champion Hartland.
Individuals at the top of the list in southeast Michigan across Divisions 1 and 2 include Ben Freeman of Walled Lake Central (135-pound champ last year), Jelani Embree (171) of Warren Lincoln, Tyler Moreland (171) of Novi Detroit Catholic Central, Reece Hughes (140) of Hartland, Elijuh Weaver (112) of Warren Woods Tower, Mike Mars (112) at Westland John Glenn and Nathan Atienza (145) of Livonia Franklin. A little further out geographically and in Division 3 are heavyweight Trent Hillger of Lake Fenton and 215-pounder Brandon Whitman of Dundee (ranked nationally at No. 3 and No. 7, respectively).
“He’s all-American; he’s incredible,” Cheney said of Whitman.
Freeman is ranked fourth nationally and will be gunning for his fourth state title in March, but he’s taking things slow right now. He broke his ankle in practice in September and is waiting until January to return to competition, which means he will miss this coming weekend’s Oakland County Meet at Lake Orion. He signed with Michigan for college wrestling.
“On a personal level that’s a real bummer because he really wanted to be in that one, defend his titles there, but sometimes you have to make tradeoffs,” his coach and father, Al Freeman, said about missing the Oakland County meet. “But I like where his mind is at. He does a good job at staying focused on just wrestling his best and scoring points. He does a good job of not overdramatizing the events, which is good. And for the state tournament it needs to be the same; just go out and try to wrestle like he always does, giving his best.”
Moreland is ranked 11th nationally and is one of five returning individual champs for the Shamrocks. The others are Benyamin Kamali, Kevon Davenport, Cameron Amine and heavyweight Nick Jenkins. When the five won individual titles the Shamrocks tied their own state record for most Division 1 individual state champs in one season, a feat they first accomplished two seasons prior. St. Johns won seven individual titles in 2013 in Division 2.
Tower coach Greg Mayer said Weaver’s two best attributes are that he is deceptively strong, especially for his 119-pound size, and has a keen ability to adapt in the middle of a match to change strategy and do whatever he needs to do to neutralize the opponent.
“I don’t think Elijuh ever feels he’ll lose a match, has a championship attitude and has great confidence in himself, and that’s a good thing,” Mayer said. “He’s lost matches before, since he’s been wrestling most of his life. So having the confidence that they should win every single time they step on the mat, that’s what I want our wrestlers thinking.”
Weaver is just one of the several hundred wrestlers who will compete at this Friday and Saturday’s Macomb County meet at Grosse Pointe North, the same time the Oakland County meet will host hundreds more. Another huge meet looming is the Super Duals at Detroit Catholic Central on Jan. 14.
Hartland and four other Michigan teams — Romeo, Hudson, Richmond and Detroit Catholic Central — are headed south this weekend to Defiance College in Ohio for the Fricker Duals.
The Eagles are defending champs there after going 10-0 last year against a field totaling 24 teams.
“We have 10 duals in two days. It’s just brutal,” Cheney said. “They have different weight classes than we do in Michigan, so that changes things for us a bunch. They take one weight class out of the middle and add one on top, which for us is more difficult because we have a bunch of good kids in the middle. We know the Michigan teams well, but going out of state you go in a little blind. But that’s good. Early on you want to see some top competition.”