A football player by upbringing, Derek Benoit was ready for much of the tough preseason conditioning program that wrestling coach Kendall Love demands of the Commerce squad.
What Benoit wasn’t prepared for was the running.
“From football to wrestling, it’s so much more running, active moment for two hours straight,” said Benoit, who played defensive lineman for the Tigers. “I only had one water break.”
Since his introduction to wrestling, Benoit (285 pound weight class) has adjusted far beyond the expectations of his coaches. The senior helped his team capture the program’s first back-to-back duals title in Class A, and will have the chance to defend his team’s title in the traditional area tournaments next weekend. The Tigers will begin their title defense on Jan. 30 in Commerce, with Benoit having the chance to advance to sectionals the following weekend.
Benoit (24-3 in 2014-15) had a late start to his second varsity wrestling year after helping the football team to its first 10-win season and first semifinal berth since 2006.
“I didn’t get him until December,” Love said. “But he’s improved tremendously. Since starting in his junior year, you expect a large learning curve between the first and second year, but I’ve been really proud.”
Benoit, who relies heavily on his power and physical size, was a match away from placing in state in 2014, but will use that as motivation to get close to the podium in his senior year.
The all-area second team defensive selection said he’s been received well by his younger teammates, who have been teaching Benoit the finer points of technique, both on and off the mat.
“They’ve been there for me,” he said. “Last year, when I was at a point where I wasn’t doing well, I finally bought into what they were saying in practice. I’m really starting to see it and I believe that I can win every match.”
Such confidence was necessary when Benoit only had four days to prepare for a competition at Creekview High, coming off the football team’s semifinal loss to Irwin County. On short rest, he finished second in his weight class.
Love said his senior has a mentality of never wanting to fail, which he often finds in football players. Benoit said he got into the sport on the advice of former teammate Chance McClure, a four-time state champion with Commerce.
McClure is currently on scholarship as a freshman at the University of Virginia, but Benoit said the two often share results and talk about upcoming meets.
“He’s just a competitor,” Love said of Benoit. “Football boils down to man on man, just like wrestling, they complement each other so well.”
Benoit is one of just three seniors on the team who will graduate this spring, but he said he has a good feeling about the upcoming crop of talent. And if Commerce happens to go back-to-back in both duals and traditional titles, Benoit can go out on top.
“I think it’s going to be great,” he said. “About sixty percent of our squad is freshmen, and next year, we’ve got the middle school team coming up, so I think we’ll be on a roll.”