ATLANTIC CITY — Russell Benson unequivocally believes he’ll be standing on top of the medal stand on Sunday as a state champion, and he’s not afraid to say so. There’s plenty of heavy lifting still to do, but on Friday night on the first day of the NJSIAA Individual Championships the Raritan junior showed how hard of an out he’s going to be.

Benson was the cardiac kid in the preliminary and pre-quarterfinal rounds at Boardwalk Hall, winning both of his bouts with scores at the buzzer to reach Saturday morning’s 132-pound quarterfinals. First it was a takedown with one second left to defeat Manalapan’a Alex Baran, 5-3. In the second bout of the night Benson looked like he was about to get ridden out by North Hunterdon’s Andrew Gapas before scoring a reversal milliseconds before the buzzer sounded to win 6-5 in double overtime.

 

He is Raritan’s first state quarterfinalist since Nick Liguori reached the 125-pound quarterfinals in 2011.

Benson will face Kingsway junior Quinn Kinner in the quarterfinal round, which begins at noon on Saturday. Kinner is the No. 2 seed and a two-time state medalist, finishing third at 126 last season and fifth as a freshman at 106 pounds. Kinner won by 20-5 technical fall over Howell’s Dan Esposito in the pre-quarterfinals.

“I feel like I wrestling like the best kid in the weight class,” Benson said. “I’m here to win it, not just participate. I’m not here for a medal and I’m not going to be satisfied. I’m coming. I want to in a state championship this year, not next year.”

“He’s the cockiest kid I’ve ever coached,” said Raritan’s 16th year head coach Rob Nucci. “ He’s more than confident, but that’s what makes him good. He truly believes he can win it all. He’s been telling me since he was six-years old he’s going to be Raritan’s first state champ.”

The win was a revenge match for Benson, as well, as Gapas handed him his only defeat, 9-2, on Jan. 4.

“It’s not the way you start, it’s the way you finish,” Benson said. “In the beginning of the season I didn’t wrestle like myself. Here, I”m me. This is my playground. The end of the season is where I perform my best.”

Benson jumped out to a 4-2 lead with two takedowns in the first period, and kept that lead into the third period after a scoreless second period. Benson chose defense in the third period and Gapas turned him for two near-fall points to tie the bout at four, then rode him out the rest of the way to force overtime.

After a scoreless sudden victory period Gapas chose defense first in the tiebreaker rounds and escaped to take a 5-4 lead. Then came Benson’s turn to try to escape and, despite getting to his feet a few times, couldn’t break free until the final second when he reversed Gapas to win in thrilling fashion.

“I’m not going to lie, I thought he had me, but crazier things have happened,” Benson said. “If there’s time on the clock there’s time to wrestle. I kept wrestling. He let up thinking I was going to let up and I came out with the win.”

“His whole career he’s always found a way to win,” Nucci said. “When it goes to overtime he’s pretty darn good in that position. He’s in great shape and he has all the tools. You have to be a little lucky and a little hot. We’ll see what he does tomorrow.”

Benson is one of 14 quarterfinalists from the Shore Conference across 10 weight classes. One of the more improbable wrestlers to go 2-0 on Friday, at least form a seed standpoint, is Southern sophomore Nick O’Connell. The No. 25 seed at 145 pounds, O’Connell beat the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds in succession to advance in the championship bracket.

O’Connell first topped Monroe’s Nick Lombard, 6-5, before topping Middlesex’s Jeff Johnson, 7-5. O’Connell is not your ordinary No. 25 seed, however. Ranked in the state’s top eight at 145 for much of the season by NJ.com, O’Connell lost by fall in the Region 8 semifinals and then medically forfeited in the consolation final to finish fourth. That meant being seeded anywhere from 25th to 32nd in the state tournament.

He was originally the 32nd seed because of his fourth place finish going down as a forfeit, but once it was changed to a medical forfeit after he produced a doctor’s note, his criteria, which includes a win over Phillipsburg’s Brian Meyer, the No. 6 seed, vaulted him to the No. 25 seed.

“To me I wouldn’t call them upsets, I’m right here with everybody,” O’Connell said. “I was the first seed in regions, took a bad shot and went from the No. 6 seed (in the state tournament) to the No. 32 seed in one match, basically. I knew my first round would be harder, but it’s nothing I haven’t put together before. I didn’t have to wrestle anybody all-world. The kid I just beat (Johnson) beat me 3-1 December. I just had to go out and wrestle.”

O’Connell gets the No. 1 seed, Lenape Valley’s Nick Palumbo, in the quarterfinals.

CBA senior Nick Schutzenhofer is making his first trip to the state tournament, and he’s aiming to win it all with his one and only opportunity.

Schutzenhofer, the No. 12 seed, won 7-0 Westfield’s C.J. Composto in the preliminary round before a 37-second pin over Fair Lawn super freshman, Dylan Cedeno, to reach the quarterfinal round. Cedeno scored with a quick takedown and tried to roll through Schutzenhofer, but the savviness of the Colts senior produced a pin that had Boardwalk Hall jumping.

“When you get the cradle with the leg on the inside, it’s done,” Schutzenhofer said. “I wasn’t looking for him to pass the leg, but I do practice that a lot. That’s the main thing I pin from. He funk (rolled) through and I posted the leg and cradled him up under my leg.”

Schutzenhofer will face St. Joseph (Montvale) junior Samuel Eddie Alvarez in the quarterfinals. Alvarez won by 16-1 technical fall over Freehold’s Nico Messina in the quarterfinals. No matter who his opponent, Schutzenhofer is not fazed. He is here for the ultimate prize. Stuck behind Sebastian Rivera as a freshman and behind Richie Koehler as a sophomore, and having his season come to an end after districts last season because of a violation of school rules has Schutzenhofer locked in on his last chance.

“I’m going to win it, that’s the plan,” Schutzenhofer said. “I want it more than anyone here. It’s all I think about, it’s my whole life right now. Not having the chance last year or the year before just opened my eyes. It’s my time now. It’s time to go on a roll and do it.”

Lacey sophomore Hunter Gutierrez also had a last-second win at 106 pounds with a takedown at the buzzer to defeat Timber Creek’s Nick Digiacomo, 3-2.

“He got in on a shot and it was kind of a scramble, just a situation you’re in every day in the room,” Gutierrez said. “You just have to have faith in your cardio and that everything you did in the regular season will come through.”

At 182 pounds Pinelands senior Chris Nielsen became the Wildcats first state quarterfinalist since Mike Molosky in 2002 by pinning both his opponents in under a minute. He faces the No. 2 seed, Bound Brook’s George Walton, in the quarterfinals. Walton finished fourth at 170 last season.

The Shore’s other quarterfinalists are Howell’s Kyle Slendorn at 126, Brick Memorial’s Gianni Ghione at 132, Ocean’s Jake Benner at 138, Toms River South’s Cole Corrigan at 145, Wall’s Rob Kanniard at 152, Toms River East’s A.J. Meyers and Lacey’s Matt Garrity at 160, Wall’s Matt McKenzie at 195 and Howell’s Eric Keosseian, all of whom are top eight seeds in their respective brackets. Ghione and McKenzie are seeded first in their weights.

 

Wrestling editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights. 

 

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