Steve Elwood followed the biggest individual match of the Minnesota season. Here is his take on the showdown between Lance Benick and Nathan Rose.
By Steve Elwood
My favorite living sportswriter S.L. Price from Sports Illustrated recently wrote a nice piece about another favorite deceased writer, Richard Ben Cohen. I didn’t know much about Cohen, only that he spent years trying to write the definitive book on Joe Dimagio. Jolting Joe did his best to keep Cohen at bay, but somehow Cohen was able to break through and portray what many consider the greatest sports books of our time. Cohen also wrote the enormous and finely detailed “What it Takes,” describing in granular detail the lives of the leading candidates fighting for the presidency of the United States in 1988. It’s well over 1,000 pages and somehow manages the reader to become deeply interested in the outcome of a race, well after it took place. He also pulled off the impossible. He somehow was able to get characters like Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Richard Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, and George Bush come across as not only admirable, but truly extraordinary human beings.
With this story, I had no such trouble. Nathan Rose and Lance Benick are two of the nicest young men I’ve stumbled across. They are both quick with a smile and easy to please. Unlike some of Minnesota’s recent superstars, these guys are Minnesota born and bred and have been on a collision course all their lives. They are also good friends. It makes this story a little harder than usual to write. There are no bad guys here. Here are two respectful students and the kind of young men their parents are proud of. I’m not just guessing here. It’s for real.
Nathan Rose (Sibley East) recently picked up his 200th win. In Minnesota, that’s not completely out of reach. We are one of the few states that allow 7th and 8th graders in the varsity lineup. What caught my eye is the 119 match winning streak Nathan has going. It’s been alive since his freshman year. He has rolled through every opponent and is on track for his third state title. He’s a two-time NHCSCA champion and recently cruised through the Iowa preseason event. Since he hasn’t wrestled in Fargo or many of the other off season events, not many people outside of Minnesota have seen him. The University of Minnesota coaches certainly have and locked him up for the next 5 years. Nathan is the youngest of three wrestlers in the family, but easily the most talented. His oldest brother Justin is in his 6th year serving in the military and is likely headed to Afghanistan. His dad Tony follows his every match and couldn’t be prouder. When asked who pushes him to work when he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t hesitate, “my dad.” “He makes sure I pay attention to my workouts and pushes me to go further.” He raves about his mom’s cooking and how great she is. Nathan Rose is sort of the all American kind of son any parent would love to raise. Except, he’s different. He’s an extremely talented wrestler that has spent most of this season ranked #2 in the nation. His most famous win took place 15 months ago. He defeated Lance Benick 9-8 in the JJ Classic. But, even Nate knows it didn’t really count. It was in the preseason and Lance had played football the day before in a playoff game. Both were out of wrestling shape. But, he won. No one can deny it. He’s the last of the big names to defeat Lance Benick, unavenged.
The Benick story is now well known and told, except for the personal side. That is, until about a month ago. Lance’s mom Joanne has cancer and no one really knows how long she will be alive. Up until a month ago, Joanne was not interested in making her story public. But after some pressure from her two sons and husband Tom, she finally relented and let it all out. The first time was with Ben Pherson (Rochester Post Bulletin) during the Clash. Later Pherson told me it was the most emotional and difficult story he ever told. He laughed with Joanne and cried with Joanne. The story was so well written, it was moved from the usual sports section to the FRONT PAGE. A week later, Ben Pherson mentioned it was one of the favorite moments of his career. The second big exposure was last week. In a compelling and intimate inside look, Jim Paulson from the Minneapolis Star Tribune brought another deep run at the Benick. Again, it was well told and now most of Minnesota know Lance is living with something bigger than any opponent on a football field or wrestling mat. Lance uses his mom’s challenge to push him. He forces himself through extra sprints and adding one more long run to his workouts. This extra push is usually easier to swallow knowing how much work his mom is going through to stay alive. If his mom is his wrestling inspiration, his dad Tom is his role model. “He has taught me how to be the kind of father and husband I want to be. I am so proud of my dad and watching him has made me a better person. “But, he worries too much about me when I wrestle. He doesn’t want me to lose.”
Lance Benick is the most confident wrestler I have ever met. There is no chance he can imagine losing. He’s right most of the time, although it wasn’t always this way. He has over 50 high school losses. Outside of Aaron Pico, I’m not sure there is a high school wrestler that has been on the kind of roll Lance has been on. He’s a two-time state champion (he denied Broc Berge his 3rd title in an epic championship match last season.) He not only won the last two Cadet National Fargo Freestyle championships, he didn’t give up a point. Early last summer, he qualified to represent the United states in the FILA World Championship by defeating the current #1 (220 pound wrestler) in the nation, Roy Nash. Remember, Lance wrestles 195. He is considered the top High School wrestler in the United States in the Junior class. No one who knows this sport would argue this.
Ever since 7th grade, Lance Benick and Nathan Rose have been friends. They’ve been on the same summer teams and truly admire one another. There is no animosity between these two. As much as I tried to dig up, there is nothing here but sincere respect for one another. Here’s the deal. Rose is a senior and wrestles in the smallest Class (A). Benick is a junior and wrestles in the middle Class (AA). In order for them to face off, someone had to make it happen. About a month ago, Sibley East Head Coach found a way to get his team and his star wrestler (Rose) to attend an indy event in tiny Waterville with 10 other teams. Totino Grace was already in. The big match was on for February 1, 2014.
With Totino Grace’s tough schedule, most of the state was able to watch Benick in the Christmas Tournament and the Clash. It was at the Clash where Benick ran into Jeramy Sweeney (Vacaville, CA #4 at 220) and won a hard fought 7-4 decision. Meanwhile Nathan Rose spent the first half of the season wrestling 220 looking for anyone near his level. He won most with ease except for a tough 6-4 win over Christian DuLaney from Benilde-ST Margaret. In spite of the differences in competition, most who have watched Rose wrestle knew he was a blue chip athlete, and this match with Benick was worthy of the hype.
Benick and Rose easily rolled to the finals. The gym was packed and MN-USA was generous enough to supply the tools and personnel to video stream the event. The Tournament Directors were smart enough to start the championship round at 220 and roll it through to 195. Several of the Finals matches were tightly contested and the crowd could feel the momentum building to the Main Event. While warming up, both guys could be seen wearing a T-Shirt designed by Lance . The front said, “Takedown Cancer”. The back said “Wrestling for Joanne Benick.” Anyone looking for a bad guy in this match was going to come up empty. Like many big matches, the first period was scoreless. Both spent the two minutes feeling the other out careful not to make a mistake. Neither wrestler made any type of move that had any real shot at scoring. Benick won the toss for the 2nd period and chose down. He escaped within 20 seconds to put the first point on the board (1-0). After a few pushes, Lance Benick reached for Rose’s left leg and brought it up to his hip. After a quick foot sweep, Rose fell and Benick landed on him to jump to a 3-0 lead. They went out of bounds and started again in the center. Rose escaped to make the score 3-1, but Benick picked up another single leg takedown and ended the period with a surprising 5-1 lead. To start the third period, Rose chose down and was able to quickly get to his feet for an escape, 5-2. This was the moment Nathan knew he needed a takedown. He tried a shot but was blocked. Benick wasted no time and shot for another successful single leg takedown (7-2). After a nice scramble landing out of bounds, they were brought back to the center. Rose managed another escape and tried a desperate attempt to bring Benick down. It was too little, too late. Benick took advantage and picked up his 4th takedown. The final was 9-3 in favor of Lance Benick. Later, almost everyone agreed Nathan Rose did not put on the typical performance we are used to seeing. But then again, he was wrestling Lance Benick.
Although the match was somewhat anticlimactic, no one felt cheated here. Both guys went after it hard and the only thing surprising was the final score. Later, both guys took the time to be interviewed by the media and were sporting the same Joanne Benick warm-up shirts. Most understand these guys could very well be teammates for the Gophers soon. They shook hands and smiled. The guy who should be smiling is head coach J Robinson.
Watch the match: