Photo by Nathaniel Labhart
By STEVE KRAH
Lakeland High School senior Ben Miller won his third Northeast Corner Conference wrestling title Saturday, Jan. 22 at Lakeland.
Miller, who has a single-season school record 74 takedowns to go with 118 career victories — 26 as a freshman, 28 as a sophomore, 27 as a junior and 37 as a senior — took his late NECC championship at 145 pounds. Ehren Misner, a 1991 graduate, leads the Laker win list with 136. Miller was previously thought to have gone to No. 1 using win-percentage projections from missed matches during the 2020-21 season.
After a 10-6 loss to Prairie Heights senior Sam Levitz in the Dec. 4 NECC Super Dual, Miller came back Saturday for a pin in 1:32 that secured Miller’s latest NECC crown.
“(Levitz) is very strong and he likes to get me out of my position so I just had to hold it,” said Miller. “I made up that loss and I want to keep continuing from this and go for that (State Finals) podium.
“It’ll be important that I don’t take short cuts.”
Said Lakeland head coach Kevin Watkins of the Miller-Levitz rematch, “Those are two high-profile wrestlers. Ben’s been thinking about redemption all season.”
The state tournament series opens for Miller and his teammates Saturday, Jan. 29 at the West Noble Sectional. The Feb. 5 Goshen Regional and Feb. 12 Fort Wayne Semistate follow that.
Miller, who competed at 113 as a freshman, 120 as a sophomore and 138 as a junior and put on more muscle as a senior, has competed at the Fort Wayne Semistate three times, but has not yet broken through to the State Finals (this year’s event is Feb. 18-19 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis).
As a junior, Miller pinned his way to the title at the Westview Sectional. He was a runner-up with two pins at the Goshen Regional.
It was as a Lakeland seventh grader Miller became focused the mat sport.
“I went to one outside tournament and I got beat,” said Miller, who moved from LaGrange to Fort Wayne and back before starting his wrestling career. “That’s when I said if I want to be good I have to go to all of these different things.
“That’s when I really took it serious.”
Miller tends to grapple with three Lakers in the practice room with junior Gabe Miller (138), Brady Schiffli (152) and Keagan Schlabach (126). All three placed in the NECC meet, brother Gabe Miller and Schlabach placing second and Schiffli fourth.
“I’ll roll around with Keegan to get my speed up.” said Miller. “(My brother) is really good at holding his position. I have to fight really hard to get my takedowns and everything. (Schiffli) is strong and relentless so I have to be on my game every practice. I can’t just be sloppy in my practice moves.”
There’s an intensity between the Miller brothers on the mat. But that goes away off it.
“It gets kind of heated in the practice room,” said Ben Miller. “But when we get out of practice we’re friends. We’re cool and everything.”
After the NECC meet, Schlabach is 33-6 and Ben Miller 29-3.
Ben and Gabe’s father is Wayne Miller. Mother Kathy Miller lives in Fort Wayne. There two older sisters — Hadassah and Audrey— and an older brother, Jaden Miller, who introduced Ben to wrestling. The Longs — including former Lakeland head coach Charlie — got Jaden into the sport.
Watkin was a four-time Michigan high school state finalist and won a 152-pound state title for the Dale Wentela-led Constantine Falcons in 2000.
What has made Miller a better wrestler this year than last in the coach’s eyes?
“He learns,” said Watkins. “He’s a student of wrestling. He breaks down his own matches. I’ll build my report and he’ll built his and they’re usually pretty much the same.
“He’s a very easy kid to coach. Even in matches he loses he never hangs his head. He goes to the drawing board, figures out what he did wrong and he fixes that. He’s just that type of kid.”
Watkins, who was on the U.S. Marine wrestling team and served in the Corps for a decade, admires Miller’s drive and work ethic.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever yelled at him,” said Watkins. “He’s a great kid.”
After high school, Ben Miller sees himself flipping houses.
“I’ve been in construction trades for two years now,” said Miller. “That gives me experience and my dad has experience so he’ll teach me.”
The house built by Lakeland students goes to the non-profit organization — Agape Missions of LaGrange County.
“They have really cheap rent for people who are struggling,” said Miller. “They can stay there for three months until they’re back on their feet.”