The smiley faces are there — on his shirt, drawn onto the backs of his hands — to remind Ben Bliss.
Wrestling, his favorite sport, a year-round obsession, makes him happy. And the Mount Mansfield Union High School junior wrestles his best when he’s happy.
“You’ve got to focus on being light, being happy and being fast,” he said.
As a 106-pound sophomore last winter, that meant winning his first 43 matches of the season, the 43rd a 7-1 decision in the state final.
One of two returning state champions not wearing a Mount Anthony singlet, Bliss has spent the months since snaring his first crown training, grinding to acquire further accolades.
“He’s gotten bigger, stronger, faster, better. He’s really a dedicated, compulsive kid,” said MMU coach Harley Brown, entering his 28th year leading the Cougars. “It’s really a big part of his life.
“He works harder in the offseason than any kid I’ve ever coached. He puts a lot of time and effort in to be where he is now.”
That push has included running and biking, grappling with athletes at various camps, and heading to Quebec multiple times each week to seek out competition and training.
“It’s just what I love to do so I do it all the time,” Bliss said.
As a result, the 5-foot-6 Bliss is now looking to wrestle at either 120 or 126 pounds.
“I’ve gotten a lot stronger. Last year I was pretty big for my weight class but I wasn’t physically mature enough,” Bliss said. “And I’m really not right now, but I’m working on it. I’ve been lifting all summer.”
And Brown doesn’t expect the new, bulkier version of Bliss to skip a beat, though that can sometimes be the case with wrestlers who experience sizable growth spurts.
“Normally that will cause an off season but I don’t think that’s the case because he’s really worked on getting stronger,” Brown said.
The memory of last year’s 1-2 showing at the New England championships — where placing was his primary goal from Day 1 — has provided fuel heading into the new season.
As a freshman, Bliss set a goal of winning a state championship but when the time came to wrestle in St. Johnsbury, “my mind was messed up for that for some reason and I didn’t get the state championship like I wanted,” Bliss said.
Last year, he set his sights higher: A New England title. He mowed through the field in the state tournament at Vergennes for the top spot on the podium. But when the time came for the regional championships, he had let his weight get away from him and had to cut 15 pounds in less than a week. The result was a sub-par performance on the mat.
“I was focused on New Englands so I wasn’t even worried about states. You have to go in confident and I was confident I was going to walk through everybody,” Bliss said. “This year I’m setting a higher goal. I want to be an All-American so hopefully that will push me to do better at New Englands.”
And Mount Mansfield’s schedule also appears better prepared for end-of-year seasoning. Matches like Saturday’s tournament in Wilmington, Mass., and next weekend’s event at Maine powerhouse Noble High School provide a caliber of wrestling Bliss didn’t see as he went undefeated in Vermont last winter.
His record could take a hit, but the effect should be a positive one.
“I didn’t get much better throughout the season because I didn’t have those matches or even losses,” Bliss said. “You have to have losses because you need to be able to fail to come back and succeed. I didn’t have any of that so I wasn’t ready for the losses I took at New Englands.”
Brown said the biggest obstacle for Bliss, who “knows as much or more technique than he’ll ever use in one match,” is maintaining a mental edge in the face of adversity.
“When Ben’s just being fluid he’s really a talented kid,” Brown said. “I can tell, when his posture changes, he’s starting to tighten up.
“You’ve got to enjoy the journey of the match and not just the outcome.”