By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
DUNDEE – The west entrance at Dundee High School, which leads to the gymnasium, makes something known to visitors in a hurry.
The wrestling program is special.
On the left, across the hall from the wrestling room, team photos of all nine MHSAA champions adorn the wall along with photos of each wrestler who won the 35 Individual Finals titles in school history.
It is an impressive display honoring an impressive program.
“We call it our own little wall of fame,” Dundee wrestling coach Tim Roberts said. “We wanted to make sure all of our kids are recognized.”
Dundee has won the Division 3 championship in three of the past four years, and the Vikings have been in the championship match in nine of the past 10 years. That's the resume of a true state power.
While the wrestling tradition at Dundee has always been strong – the Vikings had an overall 925-155-5 record in dual meets since 1970 entering this season – it didn't appear in MHSAA team championship match until 1992-93, when it settled for a runner-up finish after losing to Constantine.
Making of a coach
When Roberts was wrestling at Dundee in the mid 1980s, the standards were different. While it still was a winning program, Dundee did not win a Regional title until 1987 – the year after Roberts graduated.
The Dundee coach at the time was local icon Jim Wittibslager, whose run included four consecutive MHSAA championships (1995-98) and a 333-36-3 career record in dual meets. Roberts was a fine wrestler from 1983-86 and is tied for 56th in school history with 122 wins.
However, Roberts felt like he had some unfinished business in wrestling. He qualified for the Individual Finals meet, but he failed to win a match. And that stuck with him.
“That was really the drive of getting me to coach,” he said. “All I wanted to do in high school was place at state one time. I lost in the blood round at state – back then we only placed six and I lost to the kid who ended up third. I lost some close matches, but there were some things I didn't do right. I lost by a point to the kid who finished second. I didn't accomplish what I wanted to in this sport in high school, and it made me not get over it. I wasn't satisfied with what I did.”
After graduating from Dundee, Roberts enlisted in the Army, and that turned into a life-changing experience.
“While I was in the Army, I learned some things, maybe indirectly, because my drill sergeant just pushed us in a way that made me get more out of myself than I ever had before,” he said. “I turned myself into something that I wasn't before, and I learned something about that.
“When I got out, I had a drive to want to help other kids to learn that they can do that. It wasn't just what you were born, that you can make yourself something better. I had a real drive to want to come back and help kids with that, and I still had a passion for what I wanted to accomplish in this sport. So then I had a goal. At the time, we had three state champs in school history, and my goal was for us to have more state champions and help more kids place at state, because that had been my goal.”
Roberts approached his former coach, Wittibslager, and asked about any opportunities as an assistant coach. Roberts was hired, and soon he had reached his goal.
“We did that, and I thought I was going to be done,” he said. “I got it out of my system. We got a guy, and I worked with him every day and I would pick him up in the summer and we'd wrestle, and he won state. I was feeling great, and I had gotten to where I wanted to get, and now I'm coaching his son. I thought I was going to be done, but here I am, still doing it, and I still have the passion to do it.”
After Dundee won four consecutive MHSAA team championships from 1995-98, Wittibslager retired, and Roberts was hired as his successor. The guy whose plan to come back was for just a few years not only was succeeding his high school coach but succeeding the reigning Wrestling USA Magazine National Coach of the Year.
“There was pressure because Jim was one of the better wrestling coaches in Michigan history, so you're coming after that and trying to do your best,” Roberts said. “What I learned from him I tried to carry on. It was nerve-wracking the first few years doing it, and you're not sure if you know what he knew. I had to turn that off and apply myself and what I knew and keep moving forward and keep getting better.”
The job was to be Coach Roberts and try not to be Coach Wittibslager.
“I'd say a lot of what I do harkens back to those days,” Roberts said. “He was so good at it, it would be foolish not to take from him and learn from him. Obviously I'm not him, so I'm not going to do everything exactly as he did it, and I knew going in that I couldn't pretend to be him.
“To be successful, I had to be myself, but did I learn from him? Oh yes. Most of what I know about coaching I learned from him. I was very fortunate to be able to spend eight years with a guy who was that good coaching this sport and be able to learn from him.”
The promotion from assistant coach to head coach came with a few surprises as well.
“I was surprised at the amount of time and how much more you put of yourself into it once you're head coach,” he said. “As assistant coach, I thought I was totally living it and totally putting all of myself into it, and then as head coach, it just raises a whole new level.
“It's hard to realize that until you actually go through it. As an assistant coach, it's a little easier to make decisions here and there, and as a head coach you know that every decision made comes back at you. It was a transition.”
Richmond: The greatest rival
One of the best team rivalries in the state over the past decade has been Dundee and Richmond. They have combined to win the past seven Division 3 titles, and they have met in the championship match in six of the past 10 years, including four in a row from 2012-15. Dundee split those six championship matches with Richmond, further fueling the rivalry.
“It is fun,” Roberts said. “It's a challenge every year. They are very good, and that's the challenge to get your team at the level to compete with another team that's very good.
“They do a great job, and I have a ton of respect for them, and I think they have respect for us as well. It's been a great rivalry over the years.”
When he was a freshman, Brandon Whitman scored maybe the most memorable victory of his career against a wrestler from Richmond, even compared to Whitman’s victory last year to win an individual championship.
Devin Skatzka – who would go on to become one of only 21 four-time individual champions in MHSAA history – was a Richmond senior and ranked No. 1 at 160 pounds in Division 3, and he stepped up to 171 in the Hudson Super 16 meet two years ago this month. Whitman was ranked No. 1 at 171 in Division 3, so it was a great matchup, even though it was senior vs. freshman.
“That was pretty cool,” Whitman said. “It certainly boosted my confidence quite a bit, and I was pretty excited about it.”
It was even more exciting because of the rivalry with Richmond.
“I like going against Richmond,” Whitman said. “All the people from each town go there and watch when we wrestle, so it's a fun experience.”
Roberts remembers the feeling prior to the big match.
“It was a big moment for all of us,” he said. “Devin was a great Michigan high school wrestler. We knew that he was probably going to win his fourth state title that year, and to get an opportunity to wrestle a kid at that level and you're in ninth grade and going against him, that's special.
“I knew Brandon was good, and I knew Devin was very good. You just don't know how it's going to go. We're either going to learn a lesson here or have success.”
The same might be said for every time Dundee takes the mat against Richmond.
“You enjoy the competition; it keeps you hungry and drives you to keep getting better,” Roberts said. “I believe we have made each other better. We work really hard so we can beat them, and I think they work really hard so they can beat us.
“I know it has pushed me to new levels and to do new things and open up so I can be more competitive. I know they've made me better.”
Secret to success
If there truly was a secret to success, coaches might bottle it and sell it. But they likely wouldn't do so until after they retired.
Roberts just shrugged when asked about his secret to success.
“Honestly I don't know,” he said. “The only place that I've really done this is here, and I was able to do it with Jim. I wrestled in high school here, and then I took over and did it. So I don't know what we do that is different than anyone else.
“We have maintained success. I feel fortunate with the people we have in our program and all the work we put into it, but the secret that has helped us maintain our success? I can't tell you, I don't know what is different than anyone else. I know I have a lot of passion into it, and I know I've put a lot of time into it, and it's an endless pursuit in trying to get better and learn more about the sport.”
Whitman, a junior, believes Roberts and the coaching staff is a key – but not the only key – to that success.
“I think it's just the hard work we do,” he said. “Tim is a great coach. His coaching and the hard work we do are what make us successful.
“We start right after school around 3 o'clock and get out of practice around 7:30. We go from an hour and a half to two hours of lifting and around a two-hour practice follows after that.”
Hard work and great coaching certainly can help lead to success. And as Roberts talked about coaching technique and coaching the mental aspect, his philosophy became very clear.
“If you are going to be successful in this, you have to be all of it,” he said. “I think one of the great aspects of this sport is everything about you as a person will be exposed in this sport. If you are mentally not strong, it will be exposed. If you are technically not good, it will be exposed. If you are not strong enough, it will be exposed. If you are not in good enough shape, it will be exposed. You have to work at all of those things if you want to be a success.
“The goal is to get as good as you can at all of them and keep growing as a person as you do it. Some will excel more in one area than others but you try to be as rounded as you can. If you totally neglect one of them, it will be tough to be successful at the highest level.”
Ranked No. 1 – again
Dundee is ranked No. 1 in the latest Division 3 MichiganGrappler.com poll and unbeaten in dual meets this season. That’s par for the course at Dundee, which is coming off its first undefeated season in dual meets in school history. The Vikings are off to another undefeated start in duals this winter.
Roberts isn't out to record undefeated seasons, either. The Vikings traveled to Ohio around the holidays to participate in the highly competitive 48-team Brecksville Tournament and finished 21st with Whitman taking a first place and Tylor Orrison sixth.
“Of course you go out to win every match, but if losses weren't good, I would make our schedule so we wrestle all of the easiest teams,” Roberts said. “You need to go in those battles and learn about yourself and learn what you are not good at. You have to battle against good people to find that out, and if you do that, along the way you are probably going to have some losses.
“It's all about learning lessons as you go, and then hopefully you are as ready as you can be by the end of the year.”
Whitman and senior Sean Sterling are reigning individual MHSAA champions for the Vikings. Whitman, who won at 189 pounds last year, is off to a 17-0 start, but Sterling has been sidelined with a rib injury and just recently returned to action.
Whitman was 57-2 as a freshman with both of his losses coming against Logan Massa of St. Johns, who was considered by some the top wrestler in the state regardless of weight class. As a sophomore, Whitman was 50-1 with his only loss coming in a 1-0 decision.
“Brandon really excels technique-wise because he works at it a lot,” Roberts said. “Brandon has so many different attacks that he can do. Most people have a few takedowns or maybe one or two that is their go-to move, and Brandon has about 10 of them. That's unusual, especially for a bigger guy like him to have that many attacks.”
Sterling, who plans to wrestle at Central Michigan University, was 47-4 last year en route to winning the Division 3 title at 152 pounds.
“He is a really tough competitor, and he is really smart about what he is doing out there,” Roberts said. “He's strong. I think he does well in all the aspects of wrestling. He has great technique, too.”
Even with such accomplished wrestlers as Whitman and Sterling, Roberts strives to help them and the rest become better.
“I strongly feel that my job as coach is to make you better and do all I can to make you better, so whatever you are, my job is to help you get better,” he said. “They are very good, but I am always looking at what can I do to help him get better.
“Nobody is at the ultimate, and guys like that have a ways to go because they have big goals and want to be successful in college. We know we still have growing to do.”
Dundee has two other returning wrestlers who placed at the Finals last year: Orrison was fourth at 135, and Alex Motylinski was sixth at 145. Orrison is off to a 17-3 start this season, while Motylinski is 14-2.
Roberts also has been encouraged by Caleb Fairchild, a 103-pounder who is 9-3.
“Caleb is ranked in the state, and when he came in, he was unsure of where he was at,” Roberts said. “He's doing a great job, and he's learned a couple of things he can do well, and I'm really proud of him.”
Winning might be common for Roberts, but it is far from routine.
“I've been fortunate enough as an assistant coach and head coach to be part of nine state championships, and every time it's been the best day of my life,” Roberts said. “That's nine times. It's really exciting.
“It's so hard to get all of it together and the work that goes in and the passion that you put into it. When you get it all together and everything works right and you achieved your goal, I still find that exciting. When it isn't exciting to me anymore, maybe I will retire.”
Dundee's all-time wrestling records
- Three-time MHSAA Finals champion: Cosell Beavers (2002-04)
- Most wins in a career: 237, Pete Rendina (2006-09)
- Most wins in a season: 65, Joe Rendina (2008-09)
- Most wins in a season without a loss: 64, Joe Rendina (2009-10)
- Most consecutive wins by a wrestler: 117, Joe Rendina (2009-11)
- Most consecutive wins by a team: 74 (1995-1997)
- Most pins in a career: 118, Jimmy Rowe (2005-08)
- Most pins in a season: 46, Jimmy Rowe (2007-08)
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sean Sterling's hand is raised after his victory for Dundee during last season's MHSAA Team Final against Remus Chippewa Hills. (Middle) Dundee coach Tim Roberts celebrates during the championship match win at Central Michigan University. (Below) The Dundee trophy case is full of hardware celebrating the wrestling program's succcess. (Click to see more action photos from HighSchoolSportsScene.com; trophy and wall photos by Chip Mundy.)