Nick Bennett had high hopes entering the state wrestling tournament.
“I thought I could place,” Bennett said.
Delsea coach Greg Sawyer saw the same potential in his scrappy 145-pound junior.
“I thought he could get on the podium,” Sawyer said.
By 7:30 Saturday night, Bennett and Sawyer had to make some drastic adjustments to their expectations.
The wrestler with the hard-charging if slightly unorthodox style won’t be going for just a spot on the podium when the long season ends under the vaulted ceiling of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall on Sunday afternoon.
He will be going for a state title.
“I never thought I’d make the state finals,” Bennett said. “Not before my senior year, anyway.”
Bennett, the No. 7 seed, advanced to the center circle, thanks to a pair of wild victories on Saturday.
In the quarterfinals, Bennett rallied from a 7-5 deficit late in the bout against second-seeded Wyatt McCarthy of Newton. Bennett scored a takedown and back points in the final seconds to emerge with a thrilling, 10-7 victory.
“Just keep going,” Bennett said of his style. “Let everything go.”
That’s a key to success in Atlantic City — the ability to relax and wrestle. Some guys are just savants at the sport, like Kingsway senior Quinn Kinner, who has marched through the 138-pound weight class with his sights squarely set on a second straight state crown.
But most wrestlers are like Bennett, or Camden Catholic junior Lucas Revano. They can win at this level, provided they are able to perform at their best under the pressure of the situation. And that’s a lot tougher than it sounds, with nearly 10,000 people in the stands of the big arena off the boardwalk.
Revano stunned top-seeded Nick Raimo of Hanover Park in the 132-pound semifinals, escaping with the victory when an apparent take-down by Raimo with two seconds remaining in the bout was waved off after originally being counted.
“Biggest relief of my life,” Revano said.
Bennett’s semifinal match, an 8-6 overtime victory over Luke Gauthier of Lacey Township, ended just as dramatically. Bennett scored a take-down with one second remaining in the first extra period, only to have the two officials on the mat confer with an official at the table to discuss whether the Delsea wrestler had control before the buzzer.
“I saw ‘1’ on the clock, and Nick was behind him and had him,” Sawyer said. “I knew it was 2” points.
Bennett had a 6-4 lead late in regulation, but Gauthier scored a takedown just before the third-period buzzer to force overtime. Complicating matters, Bennett needed more than a minute of injury time because of cramping in both calf muscles.
“I wasn’t even worried,” Bennett said of overtime. “I figured, ‘What have you got to lose? You’re in the semifinals, and you never expected to be there.’ ”
By his own admission, Bennett could have concentrated more on wrestling last summer. He worked out some, but he also spent time working on his grandmother’s farm.
“Next summer, I have to work harder,” Bennett said. “I have to get ready for senior year.”
Bennett entered the state tournament as the Region 8 champion, with a 35-6 record. So, it’s not like he’s come out of nowhere.
But a berth in the state finals seemed a little out of reach, at least during workouts last week.
“I didn’t expect this,” Sawyer said. “But he scraps, and he fights. He’s not the most technically sound wrestler, but he’s a fighter. He’ll fight anybody in this building.”
Standing on the stage behind a section of bleachers, Bennett at times seemed overwhelmed with the realization that he had reached the state finals.
“I fight,” Bennett said. “I always say, ‘It comes down to who wrestles with the most heart.’ I wrestle with all my heart.
“I’m in the state finals. I didn’t expect it. It’s six minutes I’ve worked my whole life for.”
Wrestling State Championships
Sunday, at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City
Wrestlebacks, 10 a.m.
3rd-, 5th– and 7th-place consolations, to follow
Finals, 3 p.m.
South Jersey wrestlers in state finals
132: Lucas Revano, Camden Catholic vs. Joe Heilman, South Plainfield
138: Quinn Kinner, Kingsway vs. Jake Benner, Ocean Twp.
145: Nick Bennett, Delsea vs. Ricky Cabanillas, DePaul.
182: Billy Janzer, Delsea vs. Josh McKenzie, Bergen Catholic
285: : Kody Wood, Pennsville vs Lewis Fernandes, Voorhees