Benton wrestling has a long and successful past that includes seven state medallists and one state champion and one of those state medallists is starting his third season at the helm of the Rangers with a continuing hope of returning the program to its previous lofty status that includes 15 state qualifiers since 2005.
Aaron Robinson, a three-time state qualifier and third place finisher in 2010, took over the program two years ago and posted an 11-10 record his first year.
Last year the Rangers improved to 17-5 and qualified eight wrestlers for the sectionals, but only Gabe Craig qualified for the state tournament in the heavy weight class to extend the streak of qualifying at least one wrestler to the state tournament to 14 straight years.
"We lost seven seniors, but we return almost everybody else, so we're feeling pretty good," Robinson said.
Four of those sectional qualifiers graduated, but three of the four were sophomores last year and the other was a junior. Overall, Robinson has five seniors, 10 juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen on the team.
Craig (36-8) returns at heavy weight. Last year the junior won his first regional title and finished fourth at the sectional to qualify for the state tournament where he won his first match by a pin, but lost his next two.
"Gabe has had a phenomenal off-season," Robinson said. "We took him up and wrestled him in Iowa a couple weeks back at the Preseason Nationals. He pushed some seniors to the limit and took fifth place. At that tournament if you place in the top eight you're an all-American. He's had an awesome summer."
Junior Peyton Swigonski (33-4) returns at the 132-weight class. He's coming off his second straight regional title before he was eliminated in the round prior to the third place match at the sectional.
"Peyton is one of our big leaders and a state alternate last year - a match away," Robinson said.
Senior Garrett Cardwell (27-8) has dropped a weight class to 182 this season after competing at 195 last year where he finished second at the regional. However after winning his first match at the sectional he lost his next two to be eliminated.
Junior Tyler Golliher (24-15) is back at 145. Last year he finished third at the regional, but lost his first two matches at the sectional to end his season.
"We've got a pretty strong team," Robinson said. "At 120 we return sophomore Bobby Rodriquez, who won about 20 matches last year. At 126 we return junior Jerik Hinman, who was a sectional alternate and also wrestled in Iowa this summer. At 160 is junior Caleb Richardson, who won around 20 matches last year. At 170 is senior Jaron Picklesimer, who won 25 matches last year and he's had a really good off-season. Then we're pretty loaded up in the upper weights."
The highlight of the schedule is the third annual Neal Wilson Invitational December 13th and 14th. The 12-team field is Benton, Caldwell Co. (KY), Calloway Co. (KY), Camp Point Central, Carmi, Carterville, East Alton Wood River, Fairfield, Harrisburg, Herrin, Unity and West Frankfort.