Keeanu Benton hopes to create many memories for University of Wisconsin football fans when he arrives on campus in the fall.

The Janesville Craig senior could have followed the lead of many of his future teammates by completing high school early and enrolling at UW for the current spring semester.

But Benton had one more task to achieve in a Cougars uniform.

Before he heads to Madison to compete for a spot at defensive end, the Janesville Craig senior hopes to spend a long weekend in the Kohl Center, just a few blocks down the street from Camp Randall, giving Badgers fans an early glimpse of what they'll see on the gridiron in the future.

Benton is headed to the WIAA Division 1 state wrestling tournament as the state's top-ranked Division 1 heavyweight, and will take an undefeated record into his opening match on Thursday.

So far, it has been a dominant season for Benton. In the sectional on Saturday, for intstance, he recorded three pins that required a total of about three minutes of mat action. He entered the state tournament with a 39-1 record. 

While football is his first love, as his recruitment received considerable interest from schools across the country, Benton admits it will be tough to walk off the mat for the last time this weekend, whenever that occurs.

"It's kind of a sadness, but it's also exciting," Benton said. "I just want to leave it all out there and not hold anything back. I want to go 100 percent and bring it home.

“There's kind of a sadness that I won't be with the same group of people that I've been with the last four years, my coaches, teammates. That's been part of my life for a long time."

Benton's rise to the top of the state wrestling rankings came incrementally. After he said he was "beat up a little bit" as a freshman wrestler at Craig, Benton stepped up his training and worked to emerge as one of the more powerful heavyweights in the state.

He first qualified for the state tournament as a sophomore and finished 37-4, but did not place. Benton cruised all the way to the Division 1 final as a junior and compiled a 46-2 record, but was pinned in 1 minute, 28 seconds in the 285-pound final.

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That loss left a bad taste in Benton's mouth.

"I just had to push myself on getting better and stronger," he said. "Last year I was just a little too weak, I guess, and got down on myself. But this year, I got after it in the weight room and with sprints."

At the same time, Benton's college future came into clearer view. Considered a 3-star recruit by most services, Benton's size and strength as a defender started to draw stronger interest from Division 1 coaches.

Craig wrestling coach Mark Mullen helped open a door for Benton at Wisconsin when he contacted former All-American tackle Chris McIntosh, who was also a high-school wrestler at Pewaukee and is now UW's deputy athletic director.

"My first coaching job was at Madison West with Donnell Thompson (the former Badgers standout linebacker), and I told Chris that I have a kid that should play at Wisconsin -- I said he's more athletic than Thompson, and Chris said, 'no way,'" Mullen said.

A few weeks later, when Wisconsin held its 2018 spring football game -- a contest that was canceled due to inclement weather -- Benton got his shot to be a Badger.

"A week before the spring game, they invited Keeanu up as a guest," Mullen said. "I told him to text me when he got back. And all of a sudden, at 10 o'clock at night, he calls to say he got a full ride.

“They met him that night and he was in Paul Chryst's office. They could see he was a good-hearted kid."

Excited to get to get on campus and play football, Benton considered graduating early from Craig and getting a jump on his college career. But the possibility of winning a state wrestling title was one of the reasons he put that move on hold for another couple of months.

This weekend, he hopes to realize that dream.

"I wanted to finish my senior year," he said. "I wanted to finish my senior year wrestling, because I came so close last year. This year, I get another chance to get after it."


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