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Mission accomplished

Youth wrestler Gabara wins state title, takes fourth at nationals

Courtesy Photos Alpena youth wrestler Benalli Gabara won a MYWAY state wrestling title in the nine-year-old (2010) Youth Heavyweight A Division. Gabara followed that up with a fourth-place finish at the NUWAY National Tournament in the 7-8 Heavyweight B division. Gabara follows in the footsteps of his grandfather Merton, who won a state title for Alpena High School in 1974. He’s pictured below with his coach John Bygden.

Before the start of the youth wrestling season, Benalli Gabara told his coach John Bygden he wanted to win a state championship.

It might seem like a lofty goal for a nine-year-old wrestler, but Gabara wasn’t shy about his objective and ultimately made good on his goal.

Gabara made his dream a reality in March when he won a state championship in the nine-year-old (2010) Youth Heavyweight A Division at the MYWAY State Championships in Kalamazoo.

He followed that up with a fourth place finish at the NUWAY Individual National Tournament in April in Lansing in the 7-8 Heavyweight B division.

Gabara was undefeated going into the national tournament and got a bye to start things off. His first match pitted him in a rematch against Isabela Huerta and he won decidedly, 11-0. His next match was against Bryson Bonner from Ohio. It was in this match that Gabara suffered his first defeat of the year, losing a 10-6 decision. Bonner went on to win the state title.

Gabara’s overall youth and MYWAY record was 36-5, including 22-2 in the 2010-11 heavyweight division.

“Going in I was kind of a little bit nervous; won my first match, came into the second one, was working really hard. I was still losing,” Gabara said. “I got rolled and almost got my pinned. I ran out of time.”

The defeat stung a little bit for Gabara, but rather than giving up, he decided to collect himself and kept pushing for a spot on the podium.

Gabara responded with a strong finish. In his opening consultation bout he pinned Oakley Rojas from North Carolina in 2:16 to set up a rematch with Gavin Braska.

This time, Braska came out on top, pinning Gabara in 2:40 to finish third.

At the state tournament, Gabara won his first match 4-2 over Braska from the Dewitt Wrestling Club and took the state title after pinning Heurta in 23 seconds.

“I was really happy when I won it. My cousin was right there and gave me a huge hug,” Gabara said.

A passion for wrestling runs in Gabara’s family. His grandfather, Merton, is a local wrestling legend. During a two-year varsity career at Alpena High School, Merton Gabara had a career record of 102-7-1 and won the Class A state title at 167 pounds in 1974. During his senior season, he finished 53-0, setting national records for most wins in a season, most consecutive wins and most pins in a season.

He was inducted into the Alpena Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

Carrying on the family legacy means a lot to Benalli, who said his experience at nationals taught him important lessons he can use as he continues wrestling like never giving up and setting and working toward achieving goals.

“It was really fun,” Gabara said. “It was really exciting and I feel proud.”

The journey to the national tournament has been one marked by a lot of hard work on Gabara’s part. He began wrestling when he was four after some urging from his father Nick and has thoroughly embraced the sport. His path to the state and national tournaments included traveling nearly every weekend around the state to different youth and MYWAY tournaments. During the week, Gabara practices every day, working on his move set, which includes new moves given to him by Bygden.

Despite his family pedigree, Gabara’s earliest days were up and down as he learned the finer points of the sport. He didn’t win many matches in his first few years and lacked confidence.

“It came a little bit easy, but it was a little hard (too),” Gabara said of wrestling.

All that changed when Gabara attended a MYWAY event just for fun.

“Benalli had his first tournament and he had some success at it. It was like a switch flipped. All of a sudden (he) had more confidence, (he) wanted to get involved. It made him qualify for the state tournament,” Gabara’s mother Anna said. “We went down to the state tournament and he saw all these kids and all the things they got to do. He was hooked then.”

Benalli’s newfound passion for the sport shown through on the mat. During the 2016 MYWAY state championships, he finished seventh in his weight class. The next season, he finished third.

This season Gabara got on a role early and won more than a handful of tournaments on the way to MYWAY’s regional tournament, where he won again. He practiced for the state and national tournaments by sparring with local wrestlers Brody Morgan, Caleb Dehring, Isaiah Dehring and Joshua Dehring.

With a state title in hand, Gabara is aiming bigger next year.

“It’s all about going out there, trying your hardest and having some fun,” Gabara said. “I’m aiming for a national title next year.”