TOLONO — Ben Gavel deserved better.
Yes, the Unity senior was able to get one final high school wrestling season in this spring with the Rockets. He didn’t take it for granted (more on that later).
Yet, the new all-time wins leader in Unity wrestling history missed out on possibly walking onto the floor at State Farm Center in Champaign for the Grand March, with the spotlight shined squarely on his shoulders at the state tournament.
“It was one of the toughest things to fight through when we were going through that this past February,” Gavel said of what would normally be a month filled with postseason meets and shots at state glory. “This was the year I was going to be in the best spot I could to go far.”
Gavel will still have his place in Rockets’ history, though. For one of the premier small-school wrestling programs in the area, no less.
His 138 career wins — fitting since he wrestled at 138 pounds the past two months for the Rockets — are a new Unity record. It eclipses the 137 victories set by Juan Molina, who won a 1991 Class A state title and is the last Rocket to accomplish that noteworthy feat.
Gavel established the new standard in a mostly empty gym on Wednesday night in Shelbyville during Unity’s final matches of the season, more than an hour away from his hometown.
“It would have been great to have had it happen in Tolono, but I still had my friends and family there,” Gavel said. “I was pretty excited.”
He stopped on the way home for a celebratory dinner at Cracker Barrel. And then started getting his mind focused on his next wrestling adventure at Campbellsville University, an NAIA program in central Kentucky, where Gavel will compete and major in computer science.
See, Gavel doesn’t get a normal state series this school year because the IHSA elected not to hold one amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association will conduct an unofficial state tournament that won’t fall under the IHSA’s banner from June 21-26. But Gavel isn’t going to compete, opting instead to begin focusing on training for his upcoming college career.
“To me, I had my youth years and then I got to step up to my high school years and now I’m stepping up to my college years,” Gavel said. “Each one gets kind of me excited to see what I can do.”
He’s done plenty. In a relatively short amount of time, too.
Gavel didn’t start wrestling until he was 11 years old, falling in love with the sport after watching older brothers Michael and Josh compete. Advancing to the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state meet in his first year involved with the sport only whetted his appetite for more.
“That was the moment where I thought I should stick with it,” he said, “and find out what I could do.”
Here’s what he did. Gavel qualified for state in 2019 and then flourished as a junior, going 54-4 to set a new Unity single-season record while placing third in state in Class 1A at 126. All the time, the 5-foot-6 Gavel moved up weight classes, too, going from 106 as a freshman to 126 and then 138.
Then, the pandemic hit. And put all possible thoughts of an even bigger senior season for Gavel on hold.
“It took me about two to three months after the pandemic started to wrestle again because I couldn’t get into a room,” said Gavel, who also ran cross-country at Unity. “The middle of my junior year is when I started to recognize that I might have a shot at the career wins record. That became my one big goal.”
Despite all the uncertainty, despite the condensed season that lasted from late April until the second week of June and despite not getting a chance to see if he could add a state championship to his high school accolades, Gavel persevered. It wasn’t always easy. Or fun.
So yes, Gavel did deserve a chance to have a storybook ending to his high school career. Didn’t happen, though. Even with all the opportunities missed out on during the last 15 months, the recent high school graduate still has a keen sense of perspective that should resonate with people of all ages.
“One of my philosophies has always been to have fun wrestling,” Gavel said. “Because I’m there to have fun. It’s been an amazing run the last four years to experience everything I have. It’s been one of the greatest memories of my life.”