INDIANAPOLIS — Nothing was going to stop Sam Bennett this year.
Not a broken ankle eight weeks before the start of his senior wrestling season.
Not the teeth he lost during a mishap in the wrestling room two weeks ago.
Not a return of the pain in his ankle during the week leading up to the state finals.
And certainly not Elkhart Memorial’s Zachary Corpe.
The challenger scored a takedown to surge to a 2-0 lead early in the first period of the state championship match Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse then watched as Bennett (42-0) rattled off six straight points to walk away with his first state crown.
“I kept telling myself I was going to be a state champion,” Bennett said. “But I wasn’t ready for this.”
It’s hard to believe anyone could be.
A state championship isn’t won in a day, or even a year. Saturday was the culmination of four years of hard work, sweat and determination from a number of people in the Highland wrestling family.
With 10 seconds left in his championship match, Bennett looked to the corner of the mat and made eye contact with Scots assistant coach Maurice Swain.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Moments later, the normally reclusive wrestler sprinted over to Swain and leapt into his arms.
“Yeah!” he shouted, loud enough for even fans in the balcony to hear.
“We had it all planned out,” Bennett explained. “I wasn’t hoping I could do it; I wanted to get it done. I worked my butt off for it, and I got it.”
Swain spent the day reminding Bennett he was the best wrestler in the field. The two have worked out together every day for the past five years, dating back to Bennett’s middle school days.
Swain made sure Bennett remembered Camden Eppert’s example from a year ago. Eppert lost to Cathedral’s Brandon Wright in the regional and semistate before trumping him in the state championship match.
“He inspired me deep down to be a champion,” Bennett said of Eppert. “He got it done in his senior year against all odds. He had a mountain to climb, and he went out on top.”
Now Bennett can say the same.
Though Swain never doubted it. He told Bennett the wrestler who worked the hardest at Conseco Fieldhouse would walk out with the trophy.
“Sammy deserved to win more than any other wrestler here, and he got it,” Swain said. “I work out with Sam every day. I practice with him every day. He told me, ‘Be ready because when I win, you’re the first person I’m gonna come see.’ It’s great to feel like you’re a part of getting something big done.”
The second person Bennett went to see was sitting right next to Swain on the mat. Head coach Kyle Poyer understands the importance of family. So he gave up his chair to Bennett’s brother, Chuck, a former state finalist for the Scots and now an assistant coach.
Chuck Bennett wanted to take no credit for his brother’s performance. He praised Poyer for his generosity and Swain for all the work he put in.
But there was no denying the pride he felt for his younger brother.
“I really can’t describe it,” he said while Sam did an interview with Indy Sports Nation just a few feet away. “I’m truly blessed. It’s just amazing. It’s bliss.”
The only person missing from the celebration was Sam Bennett’s best friend, Mason Berryman. The two have known each other since kindergarten, and they set a goal to make school history by becoming the first pair of Scots to win state championships in the same season.
Berryman went undefeated through the regular season, and he didn’t allow a takedown in the postseason until the state championship match.
Fort Wayne Carroll’s Brock Norton scored that takedown in the first period Saturday. He then played keep away for the remainder of the match and walked away with a 3-1 victory.
Swain said Berryman (36-1) worked just as hard as Bennett and deserved to be a state champion. Chuck Bennett said it was “emotional torture” swinging from the lows of Berryman’s defeat in the 135-pound final to the highs of his brother’s win two matches later.
No words could console Berryman’s hurt, but Poyer gave it the best shot.
“Despite his position on the podium, Mason’s still a champion,” he said. “We came down here and did something special; We put two in the state finals, and we came away with one champion.”
Berryman wanted to celebrate with his best friend, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it just yet.
“I kinda feel bad,” he said. “When Sammy won, I wasn’t celebrating with him. I was so upset with my loss.”
Never fear, Bennett had his back.
“He worked so hard for it,” Bennett said. “Not to take anything away from Norton, but Mason deserves to be a champion. Instead of trying to console him, instead of wasting my words, I just wanted to go out there and win. This title is for him as much as it is for me.”
In fact, Bennett dedicated his title to everybody who has worked beside him in the past, everyone who had inspired him along this incredible journey.
It now appears that Bennett and Berryman have written the final chapter in Highland’s rich wrestling history, and it couldn’t have had a more heartwarming ending.
“It’s phenomenal to get the opportunity as a coach to finish the season this way,” Poyer said. “How many other schools in state history can say the last time they stepped on the mat they finished with a state championship?”
INDIANAPOLIS — Nothing was going to stop Sam Bennett this year.
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