What a great show Caro’s D.J. Daniels winning his second straight wrestling state title, in unbeaten fashion, against an also previously unbeaten opponent, made for on Saturday at Ford Field.
And the star of the show nearly being a no-show, due to circumstances beyond his control, adds to the mystique of the accomplishment.
Daniels (56-0, state-best 52 pins, 93-percent pin rate), a 160-pound state champion as a senior after winning the 152-pound title last year, had to overcome some off-the mat adversity when making his trip to Ford Field for his Friday semifinal match.
Daniels and his assistant coach Brett Green attempted to take the Detroit People Mover public transit system to the arena, but they didn’t get very far into their trip.
“The People Mover broke down in the middle of the track for about a half hour,” said Daniels. “It was 7:30 p.m. once we got to the station where we could get off for a shutdown, but we were two miles away from (Ford Field) and they were already wrestling (the semifinal round).
“Coach Green and I ran two miles to get there, I almost got hit by a car, and when we got to the last street our phone froze that we were using for directions,” he added. “But we were able to find our way, I got in there and got in the hole (as the next scheduled match) and threw my kneepads on, and 10 minutes later I was out there wrestling.”
Despite not being at his best for the match for obvious reasons, Daniels still found a way to beat Whitehall’s Trenton Blanchard 7-1 and earn his way on to the state-title match.
“I just knew I had to persevere, because nobody else is going to care what I had to go through to get there,” said Daniels. “I normally run three miles on average, so I didn’t feel too bad afterward even though we sprinted instead of jogged.”
You don’t reach the level of dominance that Daniels has by not possessing a mental toughness to accompany the physical nature of wrestling.
Daniels went on to beat Hudsonville Unity Christian’s Seth Konynenbelt 6-4 in the championship match, ending his career on a 107-match win streak that trails only Mike Ellsworth’s 108 in the Caro High wrestling history book. The title match was one of just two encompassing all of Divisions 1-4 in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula state tournament this year.
“It means a lot to be able to finish my season off undefeated and get my second state title to put myself up there with some of the best to ever come through the program,” said Daniels. “It hasn’t fully set in yet, but as time goes on I’m sure it will.”
Konynenbelt (48-1) was third in the state at 145 pounds last year. His loss to Daniels marked just his third overall loss in the last two seasons combined.
A pair of two-point takedowns in the first period accounted for the bulk of Daniels’ scoring in the championship match. Konynenbelt pulled to within a point of Daniels in the third period at 5-4, but the Tigers’ team captain grinded out the remainder of the match for the ‘W’.
“It was definitely a mental battle in the third period,” said Daniels. “He’s a good wrestler who was undefeated for a reason, and he proved himself.”
Depending on where the match went, Daniels’ height was either an advantage or a disadvantage, he said.
“I knew I could use his height to my advantage in neutral, and I did, I took him down twice,” said Daniels of the standing, tie-up part of the match. “I was confident in neutral.
“He used his height to his advantage when he was on top, but I came out on top.”
The part of the match that was controlled by Daniels yielded more of a return on points, highlighted by the takedowns that are always his point of emphasis in dictating match tempo.
“In the first 10 seconds I took him down,” said Daniels of Konynenbelt. “I was very comfortable in the first period, and I knew what I had to do from there.”
Getting off on the right foot proved to be critical for Daniels.
“His gameplan is always to look to get that first takedown,” said Caro co-coach Joe Fulton. “He was very physical in the first period, and that ended up being the difference in him winning the match.”
The top seed at his weight class, Daniels started his run at the state finals with a pin in 1:32 of Comstock Park’s Brandon Bavin. In the quarterfinals, Daniels pinned Shelby’s Chris Beyer in 3:08.
Daniels went 213-19 in his career, racking up 155 pins.
A 2001 state champion for the program he now leads, Fulton has been Daniels’ coach since his youth wrestling days. Seeing him evolve into the complete package he became was fulfilling to Fulton.
“You don’t get to work with kids like that very often, and we were lucky to have him,” said Fulton. “He’s got the right attitude, because he’s always hated losing.”
Daniels is just the third Caro wrestler in program history to win back-to-back state titles, joining a short list that includes Phil Niklowicz and Mike Ellsworth.
“A lot of people would have a hard time dealing with that kind of pressure, but he always lives up to the occasion,” said Fulton of the high risk/reward stakes of Daniels’ last high-school match. “I never doubt him, because that’s when he’s at his scariest.”
Gaining the experience of competing for and winning a state title last year made for an even more focused Daniels on his latest mission.
“I learned what it takes last year, how hard I needed to work and the areas where I needed to improve,” said Daniels of his season preparation.
After claiming the ultimate prize to end his high-school wrestling career, Daniels will take some much deserved time to reflect on it all while simultaneously considering his future as it pertains to both school and sports.
He has the opportunity to wrestle for NCAA Division I Michigan State University, whose assistant coach Wynn Michalak is, himself, a former Tigers’ two-time state wrestling champion and NCAA Division I runner-up/repeat All-American during his Central Michigan University career.
After leading the Caro football team as its best two-way player last season, Daniels also has the opportunity to go the route of the gridiron, if he chooses, and play football at Northwood University.
Adam Smith is sports editor for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.