A funny thing happened on the way down the scale. He started to win.
Story and picture published in this week’s Leader-Vindicator
By Rich Rhoades
Leader-Vindicator Sports Editor
NEW BETHLEHEM — Redbank Valley senior Ben Carrillo has high goals going into the wrestling postseason.
The top seed at 285 pounds, Carrillo looks to become the first Bulldogs heavyweight to win District 9 gold since Scott Shirey did it way back in 1987. At 23-2 with 17 pins, Carrillo hasn’t lost to a district opponent and one of his losses is a 3-1 setback to defending state champion Sam Breese of District 10’s Lakeview. Carrillo is the only opponent that the unbeaten Breese hasn’t pinned this year.
Clearly, Carrillo is looking forward to the postseason that begins Friday afternoon at Clarion University’s Tippin Gymnasium.
“Now it’s time to crack down and prepare (for districts),” Carrillo said late last week. “My conditioning is amazing right now, but I need to get it better. I’ve beaten everybody in the district, but I don’t want to overlook anyone. My goal right now to get to the regional finals and beat Breese.”
His head coach Mike Kundick agrees that it’s not a pipe dream to believe his senior big man couldn’t make some significant postseason noise.
“You get a lot of heavyweight matches that are close and his ability to stay with Breese has put him in good position and given him confidence. Hess wrestling really well. He may get beat, but whoever beats him … Ben is a formidable heavyweight by any stretch. He’s in position one of best heavyweight in the state.”
Considering that Carrillo was given a stern warning just three years ago, his success on the wrestling mat and football field is remarkable.
Entering his freshman year at Redbank Valley after transferring from West Shamokin, Carrillo weighed 365 pounds. That’s 80 pounds over the maximum allowed at heavyweight.
“The doctors pretty much laid it on the line that I probably wouldn’t make it past 21 if I stayed on the track I was on,” Carrillo said.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS — As a youngster, Carrillo was a familiar face around the wrestling room and football field as his father, Ruben, a junior high math teacher at Redbank Valley, was an assistant coach for both teams.
“He grew up in our wrestling system,” Bulldogs wrestling coach Mike Kundick said. “(His father) Ruben started coaching here 14, 15 years ago and Ben was just little. He grew and grew and he was always big. Next thing you know, he’s in sixth and seventh grade and he can’t compete in anything.”
A stern dose of reality hit the family during a visit to Dr. Kiran Bhat, a pediatrician for Armstrong County Memorial Hospital. In Ruben’s childhood days, he grew out of any weight issues. That wasn’t the case with his son.
“He asked me if I was ever 365 pounds and I said no,” he said. “I was a big boy and lost weight growing up. I was in the military and gone a lot and my wife’s family was dealing with health issues and we ignored what Ben was eating.
“Dr. Bhat pretty much said that we were wrong and what we’re doing is wrong. Ben was pre-diabetic with high cholesterol. He’d have to get Gastric Bypass Surgery within the next year or he’ll be 400 pounds in the next four months.
“You feel terrible as a parent because the kid was unhealthy. The doctor said we’re going to watch him die if something doesn’t change.”
It hit Ben hard as well.
“The moment he told me that I wouldn’t live, it was a reality check and maybe it’s time to start cracking down,” he said.
What followed were some trips to Children’s Hospital, renovation in the kitchen that included ripping unhealthy food out of the cabinets and replacing it with healthy food and clearly a good attitude.
“My nutritionist said I was the most easy going and best patient she worked with,” Ben said. “I would go in between months when kids would lose six pounds a month and it was 20 pounds with me. It’s the best record she’s seen since.”
But increased monitoring meant a move out of his childhood school district at West Shamokin to Redbank Valley where his father and friends on both coaching staffs could help Ben with his weight loss program.
“There were so many coaches who saw Ben group up, Ed Wasilowski, Frank Fabian, Mike Kundick, Brian Cressman,” Ruben said. “When I told them that Ben’s going to die if I don’t care of him, they all said they wouldn’t let that happen. ‘We’re going to take care of your son. Get him over here.’”
District 9 went through the transfer hearing procedure and when presented with the story and background, it was an easy sell.
“Everyone said they saw unhealthy,” Ruben said.
“At that time, it was just about health,” he added. “Even when the district back then said he might not be able to wrestle, I asked if he could practice because the coaches were working with him on his health. I just wantedhim to lose weight.”
And so it began. With virtually no background growing up playing football or wrestling because he was too big to participate in either one, Carrillo joined both programs just for the sake of getting healthy.
He took three to four gym classes a day just for health reasons and had plenty of backing from the cafeteria staff and coaches when it came to his diet.
“They told Ben to do what he could do in football,” Ruben said. “He couldn’t run 50 feet. He’d have to walk. The kitchen people here are like family. They would tell Ben ‘Here, eat this.’ And the teachers would ask him about his weight. Then the coaches around the area, every coach from District 9 would ask Ben how he was doing with his weight and health. Almost everybody that’’ associated with our community, and I’m talking about D9, they all got on board.”
By the end of his freshman year, Carrillo, still just working out in the practice room at the best pace he could, weighed 320 pounds, still 35 pounds too heavy to compete at heavyweight.
“He’d ask me or Brian ‘What can I eat? Can I eat this? Can I eat that?’ and Brian and I would say ‘You can eat this. Don’t eat that.’ We just monitored him the whole way through it. He did it himself. We can’t take too much credit for that other than help monitoring him because he did it.”
Carrillo continued to make strides on the football field and played on special teams. He ended his sophomore season at 309 pounds and headed into wrestling season looking to lose more weight. However, aknee injury to returning starting heavyweight Clay Kennemuth thrust Carrillo into an important role.
“Clay couldn’t wrestle, so the pressure was there that I had to make weight for the team,” Ben said. “Everything from the easy dieting went out the door and it turned into the wrestling dieting where I was eating half a meal a day.”
And he made it.
In the season-opening 57-13 win over Sharon to start the 2011-12 schedule, Carrillo won his first varsity bout as he pinned Shawn Culp in 1:50.
“That set the tone,” Ben said. “I finally did it. I’m at weight and won my first match. It was awesome.”
Carrillo went on to go 20-14 and notched a couple of big wins at districts. In the consolation semifinals, Carrillo decked Ridgway’s Chris Woods in the third period to secure a top-four finish and a trip to regionals. Woods had beaten Carrillo 6-3 during the season.
He wasn’t done. In the consolation finals for third place, Carrillo won a wild 14-10 decision over Curwensville’s Brad Stubbs. Stubbs had pinned Carrillo in 19 seconds that January.
“That was the point where it switched,” Ruben said. “Wrestling wasn’t just for health. He was pretty good at it. After the Ridgway win, some lady from another school came up to me and told me that she cried after that match and didn’t know why. She knew something happened. That was amazing she told me that.”
The mat skills were coming along fine for sure.
“I always knew that when you get a kid that big, it’s a balance issue,” Kundick said. “That was the first thing to overcome and for a big man like him, sometimes it’s hard but he overcame that and football helped. Both sports complemented each other and football helped him a lot.”
But the weight loss clearly was the biggest accomplishment.
“It was a feat for anybody to lose 80-90 pounds and maintain it,” Kundick added. “It’s a huge success story and to have him in the lineup, people just shook their heads. They couldn’t believe it.”
Ben agreed with those big postseason wins as a sophomore being a big turning point on the mat. He also remembered a turning point in what was perhaps a personal challenge thrown at him while the team was in Erie at the North East Tournament in January.
“Coach Kundick’s philosophy is that big guys put away the mats, so they get their own bed (on road trips),” Carrillo said. “All of us heavyweights, Cal (Haines), Brylee (Shumaker) and me, we got our own beds. One night coach (Brian) Burkhouse came in and said they got some food from McDonalds and asked if we wanted something. I looked at him and said I wasn’t interested and told him I was going to bed. In a way, I think Brian tested me. I was proud that I turned down food.”
Carrillo finished his junior season 26-13, placing fourth this time at districts to get another regional berth. He was pinned by Smethport freshman Dylan Dinch in the semifinals, then was pinned by Cameron County’s Jack Karsten in the consolation finals.
A strong offseason wrestling schedule had him working toward this season. And football wasn’t bad either as the Bulldogs reached the District 9 Class A finals. Carrillo was the starting center, but he had to overcome a shoulder injury that nearly wrecked his final season on the gridiron. He initially hurt his shoulder in the preseason scrimmage against his former school West Shamokin and missed the first two games.
“Playing football really helped him keep his weight under control during the offseason for wrestling,” said Wasilowski, the head football coach. “He turned out to be one of our main cogs on both lines.
“Ben transferring here back when he did, helped us, I’m not going to lie,” he added. “But I’m not sure he would have made it if he wasn’t here with his dad.”
In the playoffs, Carrillo reaggravated his injury and it delayed the start of his wrestling season. He debuted in the Redbank Valley Christmas Tournament and went 3-0 with a win over the same Dinch that beat him last year at districts, 3-2, in the finals.
It’s been a strong ride since and Carrillo is primed for a memorable end to his final high school season. He’s going to attend The Apprentice School in Virginia, the same school his current teammate Willie Gruver plans to attend, to wrestle as well.
“I never, ever thought that I’d be where I’m today,” Ben said. “I told West Shamokin’s freshman heavyweight at the Christmas Tournament that if he looked at me know and back then when I was a freshman, I’m a totally different person. The amount of time and amount of people I’ve worked with, it’s amazing.”
Both Carrillos expressed a deep appreciation to everyone who’s shared time, expertise and even compassion for Ben’s journey to lose weight. Ben thanked assistant wrestling coach Deven Laird for pushing him and Athletic Trainer Derek Bracken for “doing everything possible he could do to get my shoulder healthy.”
“There are too many people to thank for what they’ve done, all the time they’ve put in,” Carrillo said. “I’ve had some of the best friends, Ty and Cal Haines, Mark Strothers. He always pushed me to the next level. Keshon Truitt, Willie and Brylee Shumaker too.”
“I think it was incredible for him to drop so much weight and I never thought he’d be able to do it and hold it for another three years,” Strothers said. “When he asks me for something to eat when he comes over to my house I just say no and go get a piece of fruit. That’s all he eats at my house.”
Carrillo’s presence in the school can’t be missed, not only because of his size, but his leadership in the halls.
“You have to be in the school to appreciate it,” Wasilowski said. “He always has a smile on his face and tries to do the right thing and most of the time he does. Our school is definitely a better place because he’s here.”
It’s truly a story that belongs on the Biggest Loser, the popular NBC series that has contestants battle in a healthy weight-loss competition.
“It is a Biggest Loser story,” Kundick agreed. “But those are grown adults. This was a 14-, 15-year-old kid who never competed in sports and never wrestled because he was too big. It all started because it was a health issue to maintain his weight and now he’s one of the best heavyweights in the state. It’s a great story and I’m glad it’s getting written.”
All of it brings a smile to the father of a now highly-regarded heavyweight wrestler.
“Sometimes I go back and it’s not that I’m satisfied, but I’d be happy if it ended today,” Ruben said. “But the greedy part of me, I think and tell him every day that a lot of this is luck, but he has the tools to be successful. Maybe this will be a better story if that does happen.”
A gold medal on the pedestal in Hershey, that is, adding to a journey that’s already golden.