Before this season, Zach Nelson and his Mercer County wrestling teammates had to be content watching the Princeton Invitational Tournament via the Internet.|
"We could never get into it, so we'd sit on the computer and watch the finals,'' Nelson said of the prestigious post-New Year's gathering, dubbed the "mini-state'' tournament for the depth and strength of the teams and wrestlers that take part.
Once the door was opened this year for the Golden Eagles to participate in the event also dubbed the "PIT,'', they made sure their first time would be a peak experience. They captured third place, the highest finish among the Quad-Cities area squads competing.
Nelson, the state's top-ranked 152-pounder and this week's Area Pacesetter for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, became one of those others would be anxious to watch at Princeton, live or online.
Sweeping through his four matches with two pins and two major decisions to not only earn the 152-pound crown but the Most Outstanding Wrestler award for the upper weights, the senior standout is ready to move from "mini-state'' gold to the real thing come late February.
"Yeah, I wouldn't say 'hope.' The past few years, I hoped it (a state championship) would happen, and I've been content to feel that way,'' said Nelson. "This time, I've got to make it happen this year, and I'm not going to let anything stop me. I can't wait around anymore hoping for things, waiting for luck to strike. I've got to take things into my own hands.''
A three-time individual state qualifier in a stellar varsity career at Mercer County, Nelson has twice reached the final bout on the Assembly Hall mats in Champaign, at 145 pounds two years ago as a sophomore and at 152 his junior season. Both times he settled for silver, including a painful 3-2 loss to Sterling Newman's Brian Bahrs last winter.
"That definitely drives me to work harder," Nelson said of his consecutive second-place finishes. "I don't think about them a lot, but I have to overcome it. I'm working on doing that this year and getting that state title, and I'm not going to let anything happen to stop that.''
During his title sweep at Princeton -- capped, ironically, with a 12-1 major over Bahrs' former Newman teammate Bryce Ivey -- Nelson also achieved another career milestone when he went past former teammate Ethan Ball and Aledo's two-time state champion Clayton Rush to become the winningest wrestler in Aledo/Mercer County history.
Ranked first in both the Illinois Best Weekly and Illinois Matmen polls, Nelson's career record sits at 143 wins with just 15 losses, swelled by his 23-0 mark this season. He has not dropped a regular-season match since his sophomore year.
"That's great. That's something I'll be remembered for long after I'm gone," Nelson said of the program record. "To go that high, it's awesome for me. I remember we would always watch Clayton throughout junior high, and to be able to wrestle with Ethan when I was a freshman was great."
Capping the weekend for Nelson was getting to celebrate his 18th birthday this past Sunday. "To win at 'Pit'' the day before, and get Most Outstanding -- I was pretty thrilled with myself,'' he said.
Before returning to the prep mats for his final season, Nelson and several of his wrestling teammates enjoyed another thrill when they helped the Mercer County football team write its own chapter in the area's rich gridiron tradition with a 14-0 season and the Class 2A state crown.
With the Golden Eagle matmen (17-2 in duals) coming off a third-place 1A state team finish last winter, Nelson wants to go out in a blaze of glory with gold medals in both hands.
"Winning the title in football was a dream come true, and to have the opportunity to win a title in wrestling ... I just keep telling all the guys how awesome it'd be to have two state-title rings,'' he said. "We all want to get a gold again, and it'll take a lot of effort and hard work, but we can do it.''
If the effort Nelson and his teammates showed at the "Pit" -- an effort that also included Tristen Finch's title at 138 pounds -- is any indication, a golden treasure may be waiting at the peak.
"I know for myself individually, the drive is there; everything ahead of me now are all obstacles to the main goal,'' he said. "It's all in the way, and I've just got to get through everything.''
Area Pacesetter -- Mercer County's Zach Nelson
Favorite food: Any kind of nachos
Favorite movie: "Friday Night Lights"
Favorite TV show: "Family Guy"
Favorite college: Northern Illinois
Favorite sport: Wrestling
Favorite athlete: Former Mercer County standout Ethan Ball
Role model: "My dad. He got me started in wrestling, and would always take me to everything I had to do. He's always there for me.''
Parents: Todd Nelson and Kelly Moss, Aledo.
In the running
Annie Winston, Sherrard: The senior forward netted 33 points and snared 11 rebounds in a pair of wins last week for the 18-1 Tigers.
Ethan Happ, Rockridge: Made his return from a knee injury a big one, scoring 75 points in three wins for the 13-2 Rockets.
Jacob Johnston and Rhett Stover, Erie: The Cardinals' senior duo combined to hit all 18 of their free throws, key points in a 57-51 Three Rivers Conference win over rival Prophetstown. Johnston had 25 points and Stover 22.
Hannah Nimrick, Riverdale: Continued a strong senior season by battling through foul trouble to notch 15 points and seven rebounds as the Rams topped Three Rivers leader Prophetstown to draw closer in the title race.
Tristen Finch, Mercer County: The previous Area Pacer earned the 138-pound individual title as the Golden Eagles took third at the Princeton Invitational Tournament.
Trevor Lay, Wethersfield: Fired in 30 points to spark the Flying Geese to a 71-60 win over West Central in their Lincoln Trail Conference opener.
Bryan Heath, Rockridge: His 44 points in three games last week helped the Rockets to snap a two-game losing skid with three straight wins.
Clare Kramer, Prophetstown: Netted 32 points in two conference games for the TRAC-9 leading Lady Prophets.
Celina VanHyfte, Annawan: Posted a game-high 27 points and snared eight rebounds as the Bravettes resumed LTC play with a 69-45 win over West Central, keeping them tied for first place.