Ben Aranda said he never feels like he’s out of a match, and at the 2021 USA Wrestling Junior National Championships last week in Fargo, North Dakota, he showed why.
The recent DeKalb graduate and soon-to-be Cleveland State wrestler took second in the freestyle and Greco Roman events, the only competitor in his age group to reach the finals in both styles.
And in Greco, he kept on coming from behind.
“At Greco it showed the heart and the toughness he’s got,” DeKalb coach Sam Hiatt said. “In the quarterfinals he was down and got a last-second win. In the semifinals he was down by seven or something when he headlocked and pinned the kid. In the finals, he was down 7-0, came back, and ended up losing there. But it shows the heart. He’s a competitor.”
The week-long event started with freestyle, in which Aranda took second. He said he was looking to claim a title in the Greco event.
Aranda said, however, he almost didn’t do Greco. With a graduation party looming in DeKalb, he said he thought about skipping the Greco part of the tournament and heading home.
Instead he decided to wrestle both styles and said he’s glad he did.
“I was unsatisfied, just a tiny bit, but I went in there trying to win it,” Aranda said. “I was a little on the fence about doing Greco. I really was like, no I’m going to do this. I don’t want to have any regrets. I don’t want to be looking down in a couple years thinking I wish I would have done Greco.”
Aranda was part of an Illinois team that claimed the team title in both styles. DeKalb teammate Bradley Gillum helped add to that total with a seventh-place finish in Greco.
Gillum said the experience, especially from a team standpoint, was different this time around because of the coronavirus pandemic compared to his previous experiences at the tournament. This year was his first at the junior level having won a title at Cadet in the past.
“My cadet year when we won we were together a lot more,” Gillum said. “We hung out at U of I at a camp, traveled everywhere together, stayed together. This year it was more individual, but we were still able to get the team aspect done.”
DeKalb’s Blake McGee, Tommy Curran and Bryson Buhk also competed at the tournament and helped Illinois win the title, as did Sycamore’s Brayden Peet.
Gillum said it was a definite adjustment competing at the older level.
“It’s way different than what cadets was,” Gillum said. “It’s way more competitive. People are much tougher and a lot bigger than they were at cadet.”
Gillum is heading into his senior year for the Barbs, while Aranda is heading to Cleveland State Aug. 15 to begin his college career.
Still representing DeKalb at Fargo, he came from seven points down in the Greco semifinals to win by fall. He also was behind by seven in the finals and tied the match at 7 but lost on criteria.
And even though he said his goal was to win both styles, he was pleased taking second.
“I ended up feeling pretty happy with myself with Greco,” Aranda said. “Obviously, nothing wrong with silver, but I’m really striving to win those tournaments.”
He said it leaves him in a good spot heading to Cleveland.
“For Cleveland State to see you do well in freestyle is a big deal,” Aranda said. “So, it was a really exciting tournament, ended up taking second. Always room to improve, but I’m happy with how I did in the end.”
As for the returning Barbs, Hiatt said the tournament is going to be a big motivator for guys like Gillum, Curran and Danny Aranda.
“It says a lot about him, how he was able to recover, come back and have a great tournament at the Greco,” Hiatt said. “Him and some other guys like Tommy and Danny were right there to place and came up short. I know they’re going to be motivated to come back next year.”