Hamilton West wrestler Ryan Bennett entered the district tournament with a 26-2 record this year, with 13 pins. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

If Hamilton West wrestling coach Matt Minder is a good judge of character, then the United States Air Force is in great shape for the coming years.

Hornets’ 170-pounder, Ryan Bennett, is headed for the wild blue yonder after graduation and Minder feels he will spread his wings in the military as well as he did on the mat.

“I wish I had 14 of him, he’s fantastic,” the coach said. “You don’t get too many of him. He’s the kind of person you meet in your life where you know that, no matter what they do, they’re gonna do right and they’re gonna be successful because you see what they put into the things they care about. It’s good to have kids like him around.”

Unfortunately for the Hornets, Bennett won’t be around after this year but Minder hopes the example he set will stick with the younger wrestlers.

“The best ability for a wrestler is availability,” the coach said. “Ryan Bennett has not missed a single practice in high school. He’s been there every single day. He sets the tone, he’s a vocal leader but he really sets the example by what’s supposed to be done.

“He’s not gonna ream somebody out, scream at other guys. He can yell at kids about what they need to hear but he’s not overbearing. He sets the tone at practice, he works hard every day. He got sick in the middle of the season but he was there working.”

Showing what a strong effort can do, the senior entered the Feb. 21 district tournament at 26-2 with 13 pins wrestling predominantly at 170 and sometimes at 182. He opened the season by winning the Pine Barrens Tournament for the first time and, in early February, won his first Mercer County Tournament title. His lone losses were in a dual meet with Allentown and in the Hunterdon Central Tournament quarterfinals.

Bennett has made up for a lot of lost time after re-learning the sport of wrestling as a freshman. He competed in the Hamilton PAL program in third grade but quit after he sprained a growth plate during a tournament at Rider.

“I didn’t want to get hurt again,” Bennett said. “But as I got older, I realized I wanted to wrestle again. I started back as a freshman just for fun and I realized I didn’t like losing, so I started to take it seriously. I wanted to do a sport and it was between track and wrestling, and I didn’t want to do track.”

That made the choice easy, but that first year back was basically like a first year all over again as Bennett retained little from his early days.

“It was a hard climb,” he said. “It was kind of like learning it all over again. I forgot my stance, forgot everything. It took a long time to get where I’m at now.”

The road back started in July prior to his freshman year.

“I wrestled at All Heart Academy with Danny Flounders so I had the basics down,” Bennett said. “My (Hamilton) team wasn’t too experienced that year. I was decently strong against my teammates but once I got out on the mat I realized I needed to do a lot more.”

Bennett showed improvement his sophomore year and, despite his larger frame, opted to wrestle at 145 pounds as a junior.

It was a struggle.

“My original plan was to go at 152,” he said. “I was healthy there. Then I decided to go to 145, I wasn’t healthy there. I cut a lot of weight last year, it wasn’t fun. I just felt that’s where I would wrestle my best at, and it turned out I was wrong.”

Minder wasn’t thrilled with the idea but trusted Bennett enough not to stand in his way.

As it turned out, concentrating on cutting weight distracted from concentrating on wrestling; plus he got gassed quicker.

“I definitely got way more fatigued or tired faster in the match,” Bennett said. “It’s hard only having an hour or two before a match or tournament to get all my fuel in. The body is like a car, it needs its fuel. And the biggest reason I didn’t cut weight this year was so I could just focus on wrestling.

“This is my natural weight, I felt good at it. I just wanted to come in as healthy as possible and wrestle at my best. I think I’m doing that.”

Once again, Minder did not argue.

“He probably walks around at 168, 169 and he said he feels healthy so I said, ‘Let’s roll with it,’” the coach said. “It’s making some difference. The thing about Ryan is I don’t question his work ethic, I don’t question his drive. He’s a wrestler I know I can trust. He’s not going to just stay at a weight because he doesn’t want to work harder. He said he felt comfortable there and strong there and I didn’t doubt it. He’s wrestled well there all year.”

It started in August, when Bennett started going to Elite Wrestling in Jackson. That helped lift his level of wrestling and he also continues to go to All Heart with his brother.

Bennett’s improvement was seen on opening day when he won the Pinelands Tournament after finishing seventh, third and second his first three years.

“That kind of shot my confidence right through the roof,” Bennett said. “It kind of puts you at the next level.”

That became apparent when he claimed the MCT title, erasing several years of frustration. As an unseeded freshman he lost two quick matches. As a sophomore he won a match but, riddled by the flu, dropped the next two, and last year he wrestled back for fifth place.

Bennett was also hoping to get through districts for the first time after finishing fourth last year. He was actually beating the No. 1 seed before fatigue set in and he got pinned.

In assessing his abilities, Bennett feels he is weaker on his feet and enjoys being in the referee’s position on top or bottom.

“I feel strong enough and fast enough to get out from bottom and strong enough to hold someone down too,” he said. “I feel my technique on top is a lot better than in neutral.”

Minder, however, feels he is effective from all angles.

“He floats,” the coach said. “I don’t think he has a particular weakness anywhere. He’s good on his feet, good on bottom, he’s heavy on top. He’s smooth; he doesn’t put himself in bad positions.”

Bennett will be putting himself in a position to defend the country in a few months. He is already sworn into the USAF and is waiting to see where he will be stationed.

“I have a couple family members in the military,” he said. “My brother’s a marine, my best friend’s a soldier in the army. I just realized to get a head start in life this would honestly be the best way.”

Asked if he had ever flown a plane before, Bennett laughed.

“No,” he said. “But I’ve been on one.”