No. 4 Cats Confident In Benefiel (Wrestling)

Wade Askew

By Wade AskewThe Daily Northwestern

Northwestern is not losing a single starter from a team that finished fourth in the NCAA wrestling championships. But it may have gained one in Michael Benefiel.

Benefiel is a four-time Illinois state champion – at 119, 140, 152 and 171 pounds – and has been ranked as the top 160-pound prospect in the nation.

The All-American won a Cadet Freestyle National Championship in 2004 and has been ranked sixth nationally among all wrestling prospects by Intermatwrestle.com.

Benefiel’s coach at Montini High School, Mike Bukovsky, credits his athlete’s success to an uncommon work ethic that has allowed him to succeed in four weight classes that span 52 pounds.

“A lot of kids have trouble with that type of (weight) progression, and I think that his dedication to training and to the weight room has been outstanding,” Bukovsky said. “That’s a testament to the work that he’s done in the offseason to prepare for each season. … Pound for pound, he might be the strongest athlete I’ve ever coached.”

Benefiel’s new coach, NU’s Tim Cysewski, said he is just as excited about the young wrestler’s work ethic and attitude.

Cysewski described Benefiel as a quiet-yet-confident athlete, one who is humble but trusts his ability.

Benefiel’s mixture of attitude and talent led Cysewski to gush, “When you see a kid like that, you know he’s something special.”

Still, it is unclear what Benefiel will be able to contribute as a true freshman.

Many project his weight at 174 pounds, a class currently held by Nick Hayes, a 2007 NCAA qualifier who will be a senior next year. Benefiel may move down to 165, a weight at which NU often struggled last year – incumbent Greg Hagel posted a 12-17 record and went 1-7 in the Big Ten.

The fact is neither Cysewski nor Benefiel knows where the talented youngster will end up, whether it be with a redshirt or as a starter.

But either way, Benefiel said he is just excited to wrestle against some of the nation’s best in practice.

NU was stacked in the upper-weight divisions this past season, with all wrestlers from 174 pounds to heavyweight qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Jake Herbert posted an undefeated record and won a national championship at 184 pounds, Dustin Fox finished third at heavyweight and Mike Tamillow earned seventh at 197 pounds after winning a Big Ten title.

All three were honored as All-Americans and will be seniors next season.

It is those wrestlers that Benefiel said he looks forward to competing against.

“Those are the best guys in the nation I can work out with every day – it doesn’t get much better than that,” Benefiel said.

“Just working out with those guys in the wrestling room everyday is going to be awesome. I’m so excited to do that next year.”

But as much as he anticipates wrestling against Hayes, Herbert and Tamillow in practice, Benefiel calls the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten “a dream of mine.” As the nation’s premier wrestling conference – nine teams finished in the nation’s top 20 – the Big Ten features top individual and team competition.

Cysewksi said he believes that Benefiel will be able to compete very quickly in the Big Ten, although he vowed not to rush him.

“Even though he might be a freshman, he might be as good if not better than some seniors already because of his background and his skill level,” Cysewski said. “He’s going to find that coming from high school to college, his skills are going to be much higher than he thinks – he’s going to be able to compete pretty quickly.”

The thing is, Benefiel does expect to quickly stack up favorably to the nation’s most talented wrestlers.

When asked what he anticipates when wrestling against NU’s best in practice, he said flatly, “I expect to win.”

Cysewski’s description of a confident, but quiet and humble, superstar appeared all the more accurate when Benefiel went on to qualify the statement, saying, “That’s what I try to do.”

He also credited his endless high school accolades to his coaches and training partners, along with his seemingly famous work ethic.

But the confidence in the young prodigy came out again when stating his collegiate goals: “I want to be a four-time national champion.”

With the success he has already had, nobody will try to argue the legitimacy of those lofty aims.

The only question is whether or not he will have to wait a redshirt year to begin the hunt.

Reach Wade Askew at [email protected]