When Vito DiBenedetto joined the Upper Arlington High School wrestling team as a freshman last season, he didn't know anything about the sport, including its rules and scoring system.
Having trained in martial arts lessons at Aikido and Modern Arnis the previous eight years, DiBenedetto instinctively kept falling to his back during training drills at wrestling practice to try to set up a submission maneuver, which led to his opponent scoring an easy takedown and back points.
In one instance, he had to be pried away from his drill partner for applying a rear naked choke submission hold that he didn't realize was illegal in wrestling.
"I didn't know what I was doing when I came out for wrestling," DiBenedetto said. "I had to learn how to do everything, even getting into the basic referee's position. I kept dropping down into a guard position on my back, because that's a good position in martial arts, and my coaches had to help me learn to break a lot of bad habits. Coach (Grant) McCormick took me under his wing, though, and I've learned the rules, procedures and how to be less robotic and more fluid with my movements."
As a freshman, DiBenedetto wrestled eight varsity matches at 130 pounds in place of injured starter Connor Pitman and had a 4-4 record.
One year later, DiBenedetto has impressed his coaches and teammates by blossoming into one of the Golden Bears' top wrestlers. He had a 15-8 record at 135 before winning his first match at 130 on Jan. 20 and has placed high in four tournaments, finishing second in the Kevin Cleveland Memorial on Jan. 8 at Dublin Scioto and the Ready Winter Classic held Dec. 29-30, placing third in the Lee Spitzer Golden Bear Invitational on Dec. 4 and finishing fourth in the Firebird Classic at West Chester Lakota West on Dec. 11.
"I pride myself on being able to assess people's wrestling ability, but considering how raw Vito's abilities were as a freshman, I didn't see him progressing this far until late in his junior season," McCormick said. "Vito isn't as experienced as a lot of his opponents, but he has this awesome mentality where every situation is personal to him and he goes to war every time he steps onto a mat.
"He reminds me of Rocky in Rocky IV. He just keeps coming and coming at his opponent until he breaks their spirit."
DiBenedetto credits his father, Frank, with getting him involved in martial arts.
Frank DiBenedetto is a co-owner of Warrior's Edge Performance Fitness in Hilliard and worked as an armed and unarmed combative trainer for the U.S. Air Force 121st Security Police Flight for four years. He currently works as a performance fitness trainer.
"My father has been a big influence on me and he's taught me a lot about wrestling, too," Vito said. "Through martial arts, I learned a lot about balance and I developed a warrior mentality: to always stay on the offensive and fight hard until the very end."
During the offseason, DiBenedetto participated in several open mat wrestling sessions and attended Ohio State's wrestling camp, where he gained valuable experience and improved his technique.
Under the guidance of his father, DiBenedetto also has become much stronger physically. Standing 5-foot-7 and weighing only 130 pounds, he is capable of bench-pressing 215 pounds, squatting 315 pounds and dead-lifting 275 pounds.
DiBenedetto also regularly trains with 140-, 152- and 160-pound wrestlers, which gives him a strength advantage over the majority of his opponents when he wrestles in the 130 and 135 weight classes.
"Vito has a fuel tank that keeps on going, and now that he's down to 130, we're hoping he's going to have continued success there, because he's stronger than most kids that weigh 130 pounds," McCormick said. "He started from scratch and the success he's having is a testament to the value of hard work. He keeps getting better from week to week. I wish I had 14 of him on my team."
DiBenedetto, who carries a 3.5 grade-point average and is fluent in both French and Spanish, has a reputation for being polite to adults and for being a good role model for his younger sisters Melissa, 10, and Isabella, 7.
He is shooting for a 4.0 GPA and wants to qualify for the Division I state tournament multiple times before he graduates.
"He's an incredible individual who always tries to do better, whether it's school work or wrestling," Frank DiBenedetto said.
"He's unbelievably caring of his sisters and they adore him. He's protective of them and he teaches them to do the right things. He's successful because he has a lot of personal integrity."
AT A GLANCE
Below are the recent results and coming schedule for the Upper Arlington wrestling team:
*Jan. 6 - Lost to Dublin Coffman 48-18; lost to Hilliard Darby 35-30
Jan. 8 - Finished 10th (111) in 16-team Kevin Cleveland Memorial at Dublin Scioto, behind champion Massillon Jackson (220.5)
*Jan. 13 - Defeated Central Crossing 33-32; lost to Hilliard Davidson 52-8
*Jan. 20 - Lost to Worthington Kilbourne 42-30
*Jan. 27 - Home vs. Westland
Jan. 29 - Cruiser Invitational at Groveport