Central Cambria's Ben Rager is having a heck of a junior year. He rallied to beat Claysburg-Kimmel's Ty Dively, 9-8, in an entertaining 125-pound District 6 Tournament final and is 31-0 with 15 pins heading into this weekend's Southwest Regional Tournament.
He was on his way to having that sort of season as a sophomore, winning his first seven bouts, but then his knee locked up on him at the Sheetz Holiday Classic. It had been giving him problems that week, but he was still able to wrestle. The meniscus tear, though, ended his season.
"I was pretty devastated. It killed me," Rager said. "All of my coaches were excited about what I was doing before the injury and everything was great. I wasn't having any problems with my weight. But when it happened, I was pretty beat up."
Mirror photo by?Patrick Waksmunski
Ben?Rager (right) works during his District 6 finals win over Claysburg-Kimmel’s Ty?Dively.
Central Cambria coach Bob Nikolishen called the injury "heartbreaking," given the amount of time Rager put into the sport. Rager does all of the offseason training, has been wrestling freestyle and Greco Roman since the seventh grade and goes to Young Guns for the extra work. The injury, Nikolishen says, also affected his team.
"Our season took a dive," he said. "At that point, we were 6-0, and we finished up 14-10. Normally, one guy doesn't make a difference, but it was his presence that was missing the most in the room. He's a true role model. He's always at practice 20 minutes beforehand. Ben can go into a room and change the entire emotion in the room. He's like the sun coming over the mountain in the morning."
Rager still went to practice and helped out, but he couldn't drilled with his teammates - although it's not like he didn't try to mix it up.
* He won a District 6 title this season at 125 after sitting out most of 2009-10
* He's 31-0 with 15 pins as a junior.
* He has a career record of 59-14.
"The coaches had to stop me from wrestling ," Rager said. "I was a pain in the butt for Coach Nikolishen because I wanted to wrestle."
Rager did get cleared to wrestle in the offseason, and he came in fourth in the Greco Roman nationals in Fargo, N.D. But then he suffered another meniscus tear in the same knee at a Young Guns practice in the preseason, but it wasn't as bad as the first one. He had surgery on it and missed only practice time, but he thought the worst when it happened again.
"I was kind of like 'Man, I can't catch a break,' " Rager said. "But the doctor said the recovery would be a lot faster. Even if it had been bad news, I would have still been wrestling in districts. I might not have been healthy, but I wasn't going to miss two seasons in a row."
Rager's high school career certainly hasn't been easy. As a freshman, he started out at 119, began having problems making weight, moved up to 130 because Tony Risaliti was at 125 and was back down to 119 a couple weeks later once he got his weight under control. He finished fourth at the District 6 Tournament to qualify for regionals and finished with a 21-12 record.
"I was not happy with my freshman year at all," he said. "I started out at 119 and then I was going without eating for two or three days. I had seven or eight losses when I bumped up to 130. I was a regional qualifier, but I could have done a lot better."
This season, Rager started out at 130, but he moved up to 135 whenever he was called upon. No matter what weight he's at, his conditioning and attacking style has put his opponents on the defensive. He never gives up, especially when he was losing, 7-5, to Dively in the third period. He took Dively down, scored two nearfall points and won the bout.
"He's actually like a cheetah running across the desert," Nikolishen said. "He's difficult to tire. I've never seen him take a deep breath. I've accused him of breathing through his eyelids."
"He always comments on that," Rager said laughing. "I wrestle whistle to whistle. I don't stop until the referee blows the whistle. When it was 6-3 in the third [against Dively], I knew I would have to work that whole period. Young Guns teaches us to never stop and control your breathing. The Strittmatters [Jody and John] call it the Iowa style. It's constantly pressuring the guy. Make them think you're a machine."
Nikolishen talks in glowing terms of how good of a role model Rager is on and off the mat, which the wrestler says was instilled him very young.
"I started wrestling when I was 4, and I was told you should be a good kid on and off the mat," Rager said. "You're not out there to be a bully. Get your win and get off the mat."
Rager, ranked fourth by Off The Mat, will find a huge test if he should make the finals this week. Shady Side Academy's second-ranked Geoff Alexander is in the other bracket looking for his fourth regional title. Dively is also in that bracket.
"I'm pretty excited about regionals," Rager said. "I'm just going to wrestle the way I know how to wrestle and see what happens. I have a first-round bye and then I have to focus on my first match. I'm not going to think about the semifinals or finals."