One year ago, Keeanu Benton let the bright lights and the big stage at the Kohl Center get the best of him.
At the start of this year’s wrestling season, Nate Ellis wasn’t sure how good he was from the top position.
On Thursday, the Janesville Craig duo showed just how far they’ve come.
Benton used a pair of early pins in the WIAA Division 1 285-pound weight bracket, and Ellis dominated from the top position on the way to a pair of decisions at 132. The two advanced to the state semifinals Friday night at the Kohl Center.
“It was a banner day for Craig wrestling,” said Mark Mullen, who is in his eighth year as the Cougars head coach. “We’ve never had two wrestlers in the semis before.”
As a sophomore last year, Benton lost his first and only match at state. When his first-round opponent went on to lose in the quarterfinals, Benton didn’t even get a chance to wrestle his way back through the consolation bracket.
Benton, ranked third in the state in D1, made sure there wasn’t a repeat.
He pinned Burlington junior Wyatt Hayes at the end of the first period in the preliminary round. And in the quarterfinals less than two hours later, he pinned Arrowhead senior Travis Case early in the second period.
“I was just focused on getting to tomorrow (and the semifinals),” Benton said. “My coaches told me to be patient throughout state, which I didn’t do last year.
“I’ve made a big step from last year. It actually felt like home here today. It felt nice. I was comfortable.”
Ellis appeared confident, as well, especially when he was in the top position.
In the first round, he trailed 3-2 after the first period but began the second in the top position. There, he turned Oshkosh West senior Reese Thompson twice—for a total of five points—and never allowed him to escape in the entire two minutes. Ellis went on to win 11-7.
In the semifinals, Ellis, ranked seventh in D1, led 2-0 going to the second period, where he again began in the top position. He used a tilt to turn Holmen senior Trevor Plomedahl for a three-point near fall, and that’s all he needed in a 5-0 decision.
“Coming into this year, I was actually worried about top,” Ellis said. “But I’ve been able to ride out a lot of really good kids. And today I basically won both my matches because I turned them. I’m turning kids at state, so I’m feeling really confident on top.
“The goal today was to get to the semis. Now all I have to do is beat one more good kid and I’ll be in the finals. That’s crazy.”
Ellis will have some local company in the 132-pound semis. Elkhorn junior Daniel Stilling, who edged Ellis in the sectional title bout at Fort Atkinson, won 8-0 in the prelims and then by injury default in the quarterfinals.
Stilling, ranked second, faces top-ranked Arrowhead sophomore Keegan O’Toole in tonight’s semis. Ellis faces fourth-ranked DC Everest senior Thomas Severson.
At 285 pounds, Benton will face second-ranked Mitchell Williamson, a senior from River Falls. Each of them has just one loss this season.
By advancing to the semifinals, Benton and Ellis have, at the least, clinched a top-six spot on the podium at state.
With that first goal out of the way, both expressed that they have little to lose when they return to the mat Friday night with a championship match berth on the line.
“I’d been looking to get to this point, because I knew if I got here, all the pressure is gone,” said Ellis, who is at state for the first time. “I’ve got my goal, got podium, and now I can just leave it all out there and try to take down these big guys.”
Milton’s Dutcher earns instant spot in semis
Milton junior Mason Dutcher said he had no expectations at state other than to “have fun.”
It’s safe to say he accomplished that goal on day one.
Dutcher, ranked fifth at 113 pounds, took down Marshfield freshman Gabe Pugh, 10-2, in the first round.
The quarterfinals were a little tougher. Tied 7-7 with Muskego junior Parker Bevilacqua at the end of regulation, Dutcher dug deep in overtime, scoring a takedown and three-point near fall for a sudden 12-7 victory that advanced him to tonight’s semifinals.
“I knew he was tired,” Dutcher said. “I just kept calm in my head.
“Coming in, though, I just wanted to have fun, because I’d already accomplished my goal—just to make it.”
Now he’s a win away from wrestling for a state title.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Dutcher said. “It’s awesome.”
Dutcher will face Arrowhead freshman Jack Ganos in the semis.
Division 2 competition begins
Three area Division 2 wrestlers advanced out of preliminary competition Thursday night and will join four other area grapplers who earned byes into Friday’s quarterfinals, which begin at 11:15 a.m.
Whitewater senior Tyler Gamble pinned his first opponent at 106 pounds in just 24 seconds.
Edgerton sophomore Cole Bavery (132 pounds) and Evansville/Albany senior Nolan Kicmol (152) each also earned pins to advance.
WIAA state individual wrestling
At Kohl Center, Madison
106—Preliminaries: Beau LaDu (Badger) maj. dec. Alex Pellowski (Holmen), 9-0; Sam Lorenz (Waunakee) dec. Payton Jacobson (Elkhorn), 4-1. Quarterfinals: Justin Groshek (Stevens Point) dec. LaDu, 7-4.
113—Prelims: Mason Dutcher (Milton) maj. dec. Gabe Pugh (Marshfield), 10-2; Reuben Guzik (Rhineland) pinned Jake Stritesky (Badger), 2:16. Quarters: Dutcher beat Parker Bevilacqua (Muskego), 12-7 sudden victory.
126—Prelims: Grant Truesdale (Elkhorn) dec. Fernando Coronado (Ashwaubenon), 3-2. Quarters: Mason McMillen (Reedsburg) dec. Truesdale, 3-2.
132—Prelims: Nate Ellis (Janesville Craig) dec. Reese Thompson (Oshkosh West), 11-7; Daniel Stilling (Elkhorn) maj. dec. Isaac Riddle (Germantown), 8-0. Quarters: Ellis dec. Trevor Plomedahl (Holmen), 5-0; Stilling by injury default over Lucas Benn (Mukwonago).
138—Prelims: Marshall Rushton (West Allis Hale) dec. Colman Karl (Elkhorn), 6-5.
285—Prelims: Keeanu Benton (Janesville Craig) pinned Wyatt Hayes (Burlington), 2:00. Quarters: Benton pinned Travis Case (Arrowhead), 2:33.
DIVISION 2 PRELIMS
106—Tyler Gamble (Whitewater) pinned Walker Ingham (Amery), 0:24.
126—Alex McCray (Baldwin-Woodville) dec. Miguel Sanson (Delavan-Darien), 12-10.
132—Cole Bavery (Edgerton) pinned Braeden Maertz (Kewaskum), 3:17.
152—Nolan Kicmol (Evansville/Albany) pinned Alex Kleinhans (Kiel), 2:57.