MERIDEN – Ben Stratton slept in on Sunday.
The Platt senior was sore after a long wrestling season and just needed a little more time in bed. While he was relaxing, he could hear faint whistles and cheering.
Stratton’s parents, Tracey and Jimmy, were watching their son’s 182-pound State Open championship match from the night before shot by the Record-Journal’s Pete Paguaga.
“It went on for an hour until I got the courage to get out of bed because I was so sore,” Stratton related. “I walked downstairs and on the TV they are watching Pete’s video over and over again. They watched it at least 50 times. Once I got down there we watched it even more. This entire weekend has been a daze. A dream come true.”
Trailing 2-0 and struggling with a shoulder injury, Stratton pinned Zach Caffrey of Killingly at 1:55 to become only the third wrestler in Platt history to win a State Open championship.
“I’ve been watching the video all day and, to be honest, I don’t remember it,” Stratton said. “What I do remember is hurting my arm and thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t how I’m going out.’ Once (Caffrey) lifted me in the air and I did a little bit of a Funk.
“There’s nothing that really goes through your mind. It’s just wrestling. It’s just everything you train for. You don’t really think; you just do. I wasn’t think about anything in the match until I locked up the headlock and then I just thought to myself, ‘I have 10 seconds to squeeze. I have to finish this match.’”
The crowd roar hit an apex as Stratton went to hug Platt coach Bryan McCarty.
“Right after I pinned I just looked right at coach and, I don’t know, I just broke out into tears,” Stratton said. “I was really happy. It was probably one of the happiest moments I’ve had in my life to see all of that hard work not go to waste.
“It was just crazy. I think I went through every emotion that I have ever gone though in about 10 seconds. I went from crying to as hyped as I have ever been. Then I got my hand raised and then I went to hug my mom and my coaches.”
The Open championship, which sends Stratton into this weekend’s New England Championships in Providence, was the culmination of nine years of hard work that began as a fourth-grader in Meriden Youth Wrestling.
“That year I was on the beginner mat with (Coach) Glenn Gitterman,” Stratton said. “Then I met one of my longtime coaches Kenny Ford, who is still with me.
“That first year I’m pretty sure I got pinned every match. It was still a fun year because I made a lot of friends. It’s an individual sport, so there’s a lot more pressure on you. I think that got to me a little bit and got to my parents a little bit, too. My parents are crazy wrestling fans.”
As a sixth-grader, Stratton met Paul Calo of Southington for the first time. Calo, a reigning New England champion who will also be in Providence this weekend, came over to Meriden to be partners with Stratton.
“My coach, Kenny Ford, we had a little mat in my basement and me and Paul would do practices after practice. We would do that at least three times a week. We would work on everything. We would have 45-matches.
That went on for year until Ford, a one-time Maloney standout, suggested Stratton go beyond Meriden Youth Wrestling to learn more technique. Calo moved on to KT Kidz Wrestling Club in Rocky Hill and, shortly after, Stratton followed.
“That’s where I met Coach (John) Knapp, who is still one of my coaches today, and I wrestled there in seventh and eight grade. But no state championships,” Stratton said.
Stratton placed second in eighth grade before falling to Danbury’s Kyle Fields, who was a semifinalist at 132 at Saturday’s State Open.
“Those were the fun years,” Stratton said. “I had a lot of fun with the sport. But high school is where I’ve had the most fun. At KT, I met Coach (Michael) Cunningham, who is the Xavier coach, and I decided to take my career there, not just for wrestling, but for academics, too.”
Stratton totaled 14 wins as a freshman at Xavier. He weighed 109 pounds and was wrestling at 120. He described himself as small and frail.
“It wasn’t a good time for me and I came back to Platt, and that’s where I met some of my best friends,” Stratton said.
In the Platt wrestling program, McCarty had just added all-time Panthers’ wins leader West Johnson to his staff. McCarty wanted Johnson to take Stratton under his wing.
“I started helping out at Platt two years ago and Coach McCarty said we had this really good kid coming in who does a great job with the cross-wrist ride, you should work with him,” Johnson said. “He said it was Ben Stratton. I said, “I know him, but I thought he was at Xavier.’ I was so happy it was Ben and I was all excited to work with Ben full time. Not many wrestlers can do what he does.”
Johnson said Stratton wanted to work with him because he always wanted the toughest challenge in the room.
“It’s just his flow,” Johnson said. “He knows how to wrestle really well. When you’re drilling in the room there’s a lot of non-verbal communication. Me and Ben always seem to be on the same page when we are drilling or working out together. That’s really hard to find. In my 15-plus years or wrestling, there may be two or three other people that I’ve had that vibe with.”
McCarty said Johnson, a 2009 grad, is Platt’s technique advisor. Johnson finished his career with a 163-19 mark with a pair of state titles, one in Class M and one in Class L. He was also the State Open runner-up twice.
Johnson is at the top of the Platt win list, followed by No. 2 Luis Murillo Jr. (153-18) and No. 3 Anthony Gonzalez (137-27).
Stratton, at 125-29, comes next. He is 39-1 this year heading into the New England Championships.
Stratton said he really devoted himself to offseason work before his senior year and it’s been his best season yet. Prior to winning at the State Open at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven, Stratton won the Class M championship in Guilford.
“Before senior year, I knew I had to do something different,” Stratton said. “That entire summer and fall I wrestled at KT Kidz for travel and we went to York, Pennsylvania and went to two national tournaments. I got beat up, but I did some beating up, and that got me prepared going into this year. I would just come to practice here and there do stuff on my own. I would lift weights and do cardio to get in the best shape I could.”
Stratton won several regular season tournaments. He has been All-Conference all three years at Platt.
Stratton’s passion is contagious and he is popular among his teammates and classmates, which would explain the cheering In New Haven and the response he’s gotten around school since winning.
“It’s awesome to see everyone in Meriden cheer for you,” Stratton said. “Wrestling is not really a popular sport like basketball or football and everyone goes to your match. But to come back here, I’m pretty sure every one of my teachers has played the video, showed me the picture in the paper. One of my favorite teachers, Dr. (Tim) Sweigard, cut out the newspaper article and put it on his wall. All of my friends congratulating me, it’s just an awesome feeling. I didn’t think it would be like this.”
Even opposing coaches were coming up to the Platt staff, complimenting them on their fan base.
“I think I had more fun watching his teammates just go crazy on the sidelines than watching Ben wrestle,” one coach told Johnson after Stratton’s Open win. “There’s no other team like that.”
McCarty said Stratton has been a force in his three years at Platt.
“Ben had a great career here,” McCarty said. “The kids are such a family. I was telling them today the best part about Saturday was the drive home. We put on some music, Kanye West, and they were belting out some songs.”
The Panthers also stopped at Shake Shack to celebrate.
Stratton’s future is bright. He’s a multiple Record-Journal Scholar-Athlete who equally excels in the classroom. He’s been accepted to Western Carolina University, where he’d like to study athletic training before pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy.
Stratton will not wrestle in college.
“It’s hard to balance school and wrestling,” he said. “But I have two older sisters (Alex and Emily) who are already in college and they taught me how to time manage. It’s a lot of time management to do homework and keep up on all your stuff. No time to rest until all of your stuff is done. It’s kind of stressful when you don’t have everything complete, so I get everything done and then I relax.”
Stratton isn’t resting on his wrestling laurals just yet. He he has a chance to make more history this weekend. Platt has never produced a New England champion. Platt’s deepest run came in 2001, when Matt Cattel was a runner-up.