Ward, Schoff striving to become Brandywine’s 1st finals champs Since 1992

Published 9:58 am Friday, February 2, 2024

NILES — Brandywine wrestlers Maddison Ward and Gavin Schoff literally have gone the extra mile to set themselves up for success.

Ward and Schoff, along with their teammates, have traveled many miles this winter competing in some of the more elite weekend tournaments across the state.

The two Bobcats grapplers hope that exposure is enough to push them to the top of the podium at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals in early March at Ford Field.

Both Ward, a junior, and Schoff, a senior, could become the first Brandywine wrestler to win a Finals title since Dean Heath captured the 1992 Class C crown at 275 pounds.

Ward, ranked No. 2 in the state at 170 pounds by MichiganGrappler.com, is 23-1 this season. Her only loss came 5-4 at the Montague Tournament to Romeo’s top-ranked Amarisa Manuel, last season’s runner-up at 155 and the 145 champion in 2021.

Ward comes from a wrestling family. Her older brother Marty Ward, a 2015 Brandywine graduate, was a standout grappler and football player for the Bobcats. It was Marty who influenced Maddison most to give the sport a try.

“My brother wrestled, and I come from a family of wrestlers,” Maddison Ward said. “I’m the only female in my family that showed interest in the sport. My parents were skeptical about it at first, but I wanted to give it a try to see if I could do it as well beginning when I was in seventh grade.”

Niles Brandywine senior Gavin Schoff works out with the heavy ball at a recent Bobcats’ wrestling practice. Ward eventually joined Midwest Extreme Wrestling Club, a program affiliated with Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind.

“I really started to improve toward the end of my freshman year when I started hitting more freestyle tournaments. I learned how to be more aggressive, hone in on my skills and (I) started working harder,” Ward said.

She is in her third season competing on Brandywine’s varsity team and is one of just two female wrestlers on the squad.

“It’s very difficult to get girls to come out for wrestling,” Ward said. “Right now, there are only a couple of us girls in the high school program, but there are several participating on the junior high team. But it’s been a dream of mine to help grow the interest here and in Southwest Michigan and leave a message that this sport is as big here for females as it is in the bigger cities.”

Ward believes her technique and strength are big keys to her success.

“I feel like my biggest strengths are that I’m a pretty technical wrestler and for a female I have good strength that I’m able to use to my capability,” Ward said.

Also, a former cross country runner and track & field athlete, Ward does a lot of weight training to help build stamina and endurance. Her success already has generated interest among college coaches.

“Right now, I have a lot of interest in Grand Valley State University for wrestling. I feel like their coach (Jake Short) is going to be able to help me a lot with my goals and where I want to eventually end up with wrestling. My end goal is to compete in the Olympics,” Ward said.

Ward plans to pursue a career as a physical therapist and become a coach.

“I want to coach younger kids in wrestling working with the MYWAY Program or coaching at the middle school level,” Ward said. “I wouldn’t mind coaching anyone because I really love it.”

The late David Schultz, an American Olympic and World Champion freestyle wrestler, has been a big inspiration to Ward.

Niles Brandywine junior Maddison Ward, right, stands on the podium after winning the championship in the 170-pound weight class at the Adam H. Provencal Invitational this season at Grand Haven High School.

”I’ve read a lot about him and have just always looked up to him because he was a phenomenal and technical wrestler. Looking back at his quotes, it just really helps build me up as a wrestler. I just look up to him for his accomplishments and who he was as a person,” Ward said.

Ward looks to qualify for the Individual Finals for a third consecutive year. She finished seventh at 155 her freshman year and third her sophomore season at 145. Being in the higher weight class will make it tougher, but Ward is looking forward to the challenge.

“I was much more of a scrambler at 145. It’s a lot different wrestling at 170 where you have to be a lot more physical. You have to know where you’re at all the time on the mat and be careful,” Ward said. “My experience, mat time and having a lot of confidence in myself are my biggest advantages. I’ve made a good adjustment this year with my mental preparation, not giving up and really believing in myself. I just have to continue that positive mentality, eating well, lifting and getting the most out of every practice.”

Rex Pomranka, Brandywine’s head wrestling coach since the 2004-05 season, has been impressed with Ward’s interest and work ethic since she joined the Brandywine wrestling program. He believes Ward is very capable of reaching her goal.

“Maddie is kind of young compared to some of the girls that have been wrestling since they were 5 or 6 years old. But she’s always asking questions, watching videos, going to camps and competing in offseason freestyle tournaments, Pomranka said. “You’ve heard of basketball players who are gym rats, well Maddie is a mat rat in wrestling. She quite often comes in before and will stay after practice to work on moves or techniques to make herself better. She doesn’t give up, is a hard worker and just goes and goes. A lot of girls Maddie wrestles can’t match her strength.”

Schoff is aspiring to become a three-time Finals qualifier and placer. He is 34-0, ranked No. 1 in Division 4 at 157 pounds and regarded among the top eight in his weight class across all four divisions. All the wrestlers above Schoff in the power rankings are from Division 1 and Division 2 schools.

Schoff, far right, from Niles Brandywine, holds up his bracket after winning the 157-pound weight class at the Shawn Cockrell Invitational at Quincy High School earlier this month. In his two other previous Finals appearances, Schoff finished fifth at 152 his sophomore year and third at 157 as a junior. He is expected to reach the 150-career win mark within the next couple weeks.

“My stamina has really improved this season. I used to get gassed in matches. I’ve done a lot of running and tried to keep up a good pace in practice. I’m pretty strong, and I try to lift a lot,” Schoff said.

He’s also played football at Brandywine and was a starter for two years on the offensive and defensive lines (at right guard and nose guard, respectively). He participates in track & field as well, and plans to finish his wrestling career on the high school mat this winter as he will enter the skill trades after high school with hopes of becoming a plumber.

“Playing football helps you with your balance, and it just teaches you a lot of how to be tough. Track helps me with my stamina and staying active,” Schoff said.

Schoff hopes those factors help lead him to a Finals title. Pomranka believes the Bobcats’ competitive schedule also will benefit his two standout grapplers.

In addition to its Lakeland Conference meets, Brandywine has wrestled in weekend tournaments this season at Montague, Quincy, Hillsdale, Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, East Jackson, Kalamazoo Central and Parchment.

“We want to see the best competition we can and get the best matchups possible that are going to help our kids the most later on this season,” Pomranka said.

Schoff is only the third Brandywine wrestler during Pomranka’s coaching tenure to record 100 career pins, including 27 victories by pin fall this season.

“Gavin is so flexible, strong and athletic. He can get himself out of all kinds of different positions, including some (ways) you just can’t coach,” Pomranka said. “There have been matches where it looks like his opponent will take him down, and next thing you know Gavin has the guy turned over on his back.”


Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at hassingermitchell@gmail.com