Matchups between wrestling’s prep stars are unlike any others

Updated: December 28, 2023

Photo: Marcus Blaze (left) got in deep on the leg of Ben Davino in their 132-pound Ironman final, but it was not enough as Davino prevailed in a tiebreaker. (Robert Preston photo)

By Mike Finn

It was definitely a tiring night for the Davinos during the finals of the recent Ironman, held Dec. 8-9 for the 29th time at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

The most notable Davino was Ben, a senior from St. Charles East High School in Illinois, who held off Marcus Blaze of Perrysburg, Ohio, in an ultimate tiebreaker for the 132-pound championship.

The other Davino was Mark, Ben’s father who spent most of his night fighting through all the fans, packed around the championship mat, just so that he could reach and interview champions for Flowrestling.

What you need to know is that Mark does not work full-time for Flo. He took on that task just so that he does not get caught up in the emotions of watching his son battle through the nation’s best high school wrestlers.

No one knows that better than Ben, who won six bouts for his second Ironman title, including two that went into overtime.

“It scares me sometimes,” admitted Ben. “He probably does not have the best heart because of all these stressful situations. He’s one of my biggest fans and I love him.”

Frankly, there were countless heart-stopping moments from this tournament that saw four No. 1 seeds get upset before the finals. 8 of the 13 finals bouts were decided by two points or less, including three in overtime.

These are things fans loves about high school wrestling, and part of what makes the sport great at the prep level.

What is remarkable to me about this tournament or other national events like Super 32 was the number of highly-ranked wrestlers who actually faced other highly-ranked wrestlers. 

For example, the 126-pound final between eventual champ Luke Lilledahl from Wyoming Seminary and Jax Forrest of Bishop McCort High School was a rematch of the 2022 Ironman final that also saw Lilledahl also win in overtime.

“These (rematches) really test your fortitude,” said Lilledahl. “Having to wrestle a guy five times in two years is hard. You have to keep evolving and not work in a position that your opponent is going to expose you. Luckily, I’ve won the times when it counted the most.”

It’s not just that Lilledahl won, but the way he and Forrest went at it for six minutes. At one point, I overheard a fan say both wrestlers looked like they had no joints as each scrambled out of dangerous positions.

“That comes with a lot of hard work and dedication,” Lilledahl said. “We both laid it out there on the line. You have to do that every time you step on the mat.”

Unfortunately, that does not happen as often this time of the year with college wrestlers, who are not always in the line-ups against other nationally-ranked wrestlers; making one think that coaches are also trying to avoid a loss that could affect a wrestler’s NCAA seeding in March.

Yet, their younger counterparts who already have their college choice in place, appear to love the challenge and risk of wrestling someone they probably won’t see in their state tournament. For some, that includes facing and beating college wrestlers in open tournaments; similar to when Blaze beat 2023 NCAA runner-up Matt Ramos in the Clarion Open in November.

Davino, who will wrestle at Ohio State in the future, realized how tough Blaze was, but relished the chance to wrestle him again.

“We are both super poised wrestlers and we know what is going on in every situation of the match,” said Davino, who was on the 17U World Team with Blaze last summer. “We know each other so well because we practice with each other because we are among the highest level of athletes.”

Here’s to wishing that all wrestlers in high school or college went at it as much as the Ironman stars.

It’s great for the sport even if it stresses out their parents.

(Mike Finn, who has covered amateur wrestling for 35 years, has served as WIN editor since 2003. He can be reached at