SPRINGFIELD • The path to the 113-pound state championship would have to go through a wrestler named Ben, and there was one on each side of the bracket at the Bank of Springfield Center during Saturday’s tournament. Ben Davino, of St. Charles East, and Dekalb’s Ben Aranda would each be on his own terror through his own side of the bracket on the way to the finals. The two had already met a few weeks earlier, and Davino won that match-up with a 5-2 decision—but this match would be worth much more as each was focused on his first state championship.
For freshman Ben Davino, his path started as the number-one seed in the bracket, and as an undefeated wrestler coming into his first Illinois state championships. But Davino had wrestled on big stages and in big matches before; however, there is no telling how a freshman will react once he is in his first state tournament. In the case of Davino, nothing had changed from how he had wrestled all season.
St. Charles’ most recognized wrestler would open up against a senior from Glenbrook North, Jady Mehta, and the freshman looked calm and seasoned and ready to wrestle. Within the first sixteen seconds, Davino had his first takedown, and he also scored some back points in the process. He would cut Mehta, score two more takedowns in the next twenty-four seconds, and then record a fall in 00:58.
For his next match, Davino would only need 00:51 to put away Caleb Drousias from Mt. Carmel. Again, Davino, scored off a takedown, this time thirteen seconds after the first whistle, he would score three back points from there, release Drousias, and take him down one more time before recording his second fall in as many matches.
Now in the semifinals, Davino would have his toughest opponent to that point. He would face Marist’s 113-pound number-seven ranked sophomore, Jesse Herrera. As he had done in his first two matches, Davino struck quickly and often. In the first thirteen seconds, Davino had a takedown and, six seconds later, he had scored three more back points. After releasing Herrera, he would score seven seconds later, release Herrera a second time, and, twenty-one seconds after, Davino would take his opponent down and finish him off with a fall in 1:25.
Davino, in his first state championship tournament, and three matches won and a final’s appearance in front of him, had spent a total of 3:14 on the mat—but he had dominated every second of that time.
On the lower half of the bracket, senior Ben Aranda, now in his third state championship tournament, was on his own course. As a sophomore, he did not place, and last season he would earn a fourth-place finish. Now, as a more complete wrestler, he began his day by defeating Grant’s Caleb Scott with a 15-0 technical fall in 2:54. In the quarterfinals and the semifinals, he would have two more dominating performances. He would win by fall in each of those two matches—a fall over Vincent Merola of Lake Park in 1:35, and a fall in 4:35 over number-five ranked Joey Malito of Lincoln-Way Central.
The finals were set, and no one was surprised by the two young men who would be wrestling for the 113-pound state championship. Both were recognized as the top two wrestlers in the state, nationally ranked, and each exceptional and exciting to watch wrestle in his own regard.
The match itself would arguably be the best match of the night with two marquee wrestlers. It would also feature one wrestler who was exiting his high school career, as another wrestler was entering his—as well as two wrestlers who had been training together a great deal throughout the pandemic. Each would know the other’s style, each already had a feel for the other, and the match would come down to which of these two very talented young men could take advantage of his own positions.
Once the first whistle started the title bout, Aranda was low in his stance and found his way into a tie on the freshman. Davino would drag through the position and into a reattack, and both wrestlers would be locked up in a head tie back on their feet. From a left-handed underhook, Davino would create the first offensive attack when he snaped Aranda to the mat and tried to race behind his left side. Aranda, spinning up and able to get his left hand to a body wizard, came free, and then, as he came out, Aranda would fire another shot. No points would be scored, and great movement and action had filled the first thirty seconds of the match.
Aranda would remain low in his position, and Davino would work to his left-hand over hook—he is exceptional in this position with his fireman’s carry. Fending him off, Aranda remained heavy on his opponent’s head and the two were in a hard hand fight.
Davino would work to a heavy head tie of his own and, as Aranda came up, and then down, Davino hit a shuck, crowded Aranda’s hips, and was in on Aranda’s left leg. From here, Aranda would try to scramble to a right-handed switch, but Davino would secure a takedown and take control on top with a deeply-secured tight waist for the first two points of the match with about forty seconds remaining.
Immediately, Aranda fought to knee-slide position and was working hands as he was gathering himself up to his feet. On top, Davino kept enough pressure to keep the senior on one knee, and would pull him tight and roll backwards while slipping in a half-nelson looking for back points. Aranda would roll through the position and tripod up with the freshman riding heavily on his left side, still with the half and tight waist. Then, with ten seconds left in the period, Aranda would rise to his feet and Davino would try to far leg trip him. On his step, Aranda would turn into Davino, catching Davino off balance, and he scored a two-point reversal on the edge of the mat with five seconds left in the period.
“They know each other really well,” St. Charles East head coach Jason Potter said of the matchup. “We changed up a few things, but that reversal [Aranda scored] in the first period, those were the first offensive points Davino’s given up all year long. It was important to see how Davino would compose himself and respond.”
The period would end with Aranda on top, but not without a quick five-second flurry by Davino who had no intentions of being content on bottom for the remainder of the period—he responded just as his coach expected, he continued to wrestle through the position. The period would end; however, it was tied 2-2 and the excitement and energy in the match, and the arena, were high.
In the second period, Davino would have choice, choose down, and, after twenty seconds of battling to escape, he would kick himself free. The score would be 3-2, in favor of the freshman, but the period’s action had not yet started.
With 1:14 left, Davino would work himself into Aranda’s left leg off a quick shot from a head tie. And, as the crowd sounded off in anticipation of what looked like a sure-fire takedown, it turned into a great scramble. Aranda was down on his right hip, reached and secured the near ankle of Davino, and pulled it in tight as Davino was looking to hook his leg and isolate the hip and gather his two points. In the process, Aranda pulled the leg in tight and went to roll through the position. In response, Davino tried to come up, and all this did was give Aranda a far ankle fight while he bridged to work out of the scramble.
With the scramble continuing, the two end up in a scorpion position, but the referee allowed the wrestling continue. Davino, momentarily, would look to have secured the takedown coming out the backside, but Aranda, still locked on that right ankle, now over his back, worked to his base and rolled through again as Davino stepped over. Now in position to post up, Aranda looked to have finally place himself in a favorable position to score as Davino was draped over his back and locked on his ankles. But there would be no points scored. A stalemate would be called after a wild and well-positioned fifty-one second scramble. The crowd would respond in cheer to the efforts of each wrestler, and both would head back to the center of the mat for a re-start.
For the last twenty-three seconds, the two wrestlers would continue their work for a favorable position. Aranda would work to tie up Davino, and Davino would snap off, looking for a reaction and trying to wrestle more in space. The period would end with both wrestlers on their knees with a strong head tie with no advantage either way.
The third period would see Aranda choose down, escape in twelve seconds as Davino worked to keep him down, and a 3-3 tie would show on the scoreboard as 1:48 was left in the title match. But Aranda did not wait long to work into his own shot. In fact, three seconds after his escape point was awarded, Davino took a heavy left-foot lead step, and Aranda timed it perfectly as his level dropped and he fired in and captured the freshman’s leg, dropping him to his hip.
As Aranda fought for the takedown, Davino was already hitting the corner with a crotch-lift and the two would, again, find themselves in a position battle. Each would latch onto the other and, along the edge of the mat, they would find themselves in another stalemate with 1:26 left in the match.
The senior, with the last offensive attack, seemed to be looking to assert himself as he was the first one back to the starting line. Davino, looking back to his corner twice, casually found his way back to the center as instruction from his coach was being given.
On the restart, levels changed, Aranda worked into his tie, and Davino would match the levels and snap out of head ties. In his next tie, Aranda took to the offensive again. With forty-nine seconds left in the match, Aranda would snap the head, fake a shot with his right hand, and, as Davino came over him, he took a shot to his left; then, off the sprawl, Aranda transferred to a duck under to his right. Davino, reacting to each defensively, found control of the tie, composed himself, and attempted an ankle pick to his own right as Aranda backed out and both wrestlers were back on their feet.
In no time at all, Aranda would have a left-handed underhook and fire off another left-sided hi-crotch—to no avail. The match, still tied at 3-3, would now cross the thirty-second mark of time remaining in regulation.
Fifteen seconds later, after a series of hand fighting and level changes, Aranda would snap out of a tie and Davino would transition right into a very slick right-sided duck under. Aranda would quickly gather himself and hit a slide-by as Davino’s right arm was hanging. Davino would swing his body and get into a seatbelt position, but not to ride out the period. He would come up to an underhook and try to throw it over to his own shot. Aranda, not conceding anything, would block the attempt and the match would go into its first overtime.
In the first overtime minute, the chess match continued. Each wrestler was changing his levels, snapping out of ties, and reattacks were fired when opportunities presented themselves. However, there would be no bonified shots taken and the match would extend into the two thirty-second overtime periods.
Davino would choose down, and it would be up to Aranda to ride him out—Aranda, who is a strong top rider, had no intention of allowing the Fighting Saint to escape.
Aranda would chop off the whistle and, as Davino sat out, Aranda squared his position and tried to suck Davino back. The action placed Davino over to his belly as Aranda secured a tight waist before he transferred to a spiral-ride and a right-handed half. Davino, with fifteen seconds left, would work to his feet and, with eight seconds remaining, he jumped into a left-shouldered roll. Aranda, glued to his back, rolled with him and, as Davino ended up out of bounds, Aranda was right there with him. There would be one second left in the overtime period—it would end with Aranda still on top and the senior was now in a very favorable position. All he would have to do is escape, fend off any attack, and he would exit his high school career with a state championship.
As Aranda set himself on bottom, Davino motioned toward Potter in his corner. A few words were exchanged, and then Davino signaled for a neutral start. The match would be won or lost in the neutral position. Aranda would be up by a 4-3 score, and thirty seconds would determine ultimate joy for one, and ultimate sadness for the other.
“I said feet and he said, ‘Sure. Let’s do it,’” Potter smiled of the overtime decision to go neutral. “We’ve built up a lot of trust over the past year and that’s a situation where the advantage goes to the second guy. I didn’t want to put it into a scramble or some funky situation—our go-to is on our feet, that’s where Davino succeeds. My thought process was that there was thirty seconds left, so let’s put ourselves in the best position to score. If we were going to lose, we’re going to go down swinging where we’re strong.”
As for Davino’s response to his coach’s choice, “Coach Potter told me to go neutral,” he recalled of their brief conversation, “and I was like, ‘Why not?’ I got thirty seconds. Give it everything I got.’ I could see it in his face, in his expressions. He was telling me, ‘You’re going to do this. You’re going to win it on your feet.’”
And while the clock was being adjusted for what would be the second thirty seconds of the match, Aranda, who was made aware of the escape point, immediately set himself, right foot on the line, and was ready to wrestle. Davino, he would take a moment, stand up and bounce side to side, then he kicked each leg forward, almost mini-marching—seemingly gathering himself for the thirty seconds—just before he stepped to the line.
Just as soon as the clock was set, the whistle blew and Davino moved forward and faked a shot right away. Aranda, back and circling, reached and snaped with his left. Davino, being snapped, recovered, tried a shot to his left, and both ended up with his right ear to right ear in a tight head tie that only favored the senior as twenty seconds remained.
At seventeen seconds, Davino found his way out of the tie, but Aranda, crafty and a veteran who had not been called for stalling yet in the match, stayed in his stance and circled back—he was now just twelve seconds away from his title.
Desperate, with a right-handed head tie, Davino would snap the senior Barb and shoot to his own left. Out of that missed attempt, Davino continued with the right-handed head tie and kept his pressure down. With that pressure, Aranda came back up and stepped with his left to steady his position. When he stepped, Davino cross-picked that very left ankle of Aranda and drove into him, scored a takedown, and locked up a cradle with four seconds left. Davino would watch the clock click away as his hands refused to break apart.
“[Getting in on that shot was] super exciting,” Davino said of his winning takedown. “I didn’t believe in myself for some of [that match], but the last ten seconds I was like, ‘Just go-go-go.’”
Time would run out, Davino would stand up and flex to his corner. Aranda would sit, right hip to the mat, left knee up with his left arm resting on it, in disbelief. As he sat, Davino went to his corner and dropped a two-handed power slap into his coach’s hands.
When Davino left the mat, his coach could not have been prouder of his freshman state champion. “I’m thrilled he was able to keep his composure,” Potter commented regarding how his wrestler handled the match. “It’s one thing when you are running into a perfect season like that—I was a little nervous, I didn’t want to bring it up—if you give up a takedown, you wonder how he is going to react, especially if it’s in his head. But he wrestled through the situation and got into double overtime and did a great job getting into position to score and scoring.”
As for Davino, he said the title “Feels pretty good. A little nerve racking, but I got it done. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of.” In regard to his ability to score, he credited his coach and his training. “Coach Potter has been coaching me through certain positions for this match, and my relentless attacks [were the difference]. I’ve been training those ten-second bursts for a while now, and it all paid off.”
And after the match was concluded, the talk of Davino being a four-timer was now a legitime topic of conversation. The freshman capped off his individual season with a 34-0 record, a state championship, and the opportunity at a historic feat over his next three years.
Davino’s journey moving forward should be nothing less than exciting. His style, his composure, his work ethic, and how he competes have all of the upsides needed to capture four state titles—but only time will tell. Until then, Davino’s career should be fun to follow.
• TC LIFONTI / tclifonti.com
LEAD WRITER FOR ILLINOIS MATMEN