The Nebraska State Wrestling Championships start on Thursday in Omaha, but the memories of the tournament are still fresh in the mind of one Wayne resident who holds a small part in the history of Nebraska high school wrestling.
Matt Nelson looks back with fondness at the run of success he had 15 years ago in the Wayne High School wrestling program, pulling off a rare career feat by winning three state titles during a career that included a sixth-place medal between 2001 and 2004.
It all started for Nelson in the family’s basement. The two younger sons of Ray and Marta Nelson would spend a lot of time in the basement, where older brother Dan would teach Matt moves that he learned while at junior high wrestling practice.
“Dan got talked into going out for wrestling by a couple of his buddies, and he’d get done with junior high practice and I’d be waiting for him down in the basement,” Nelson remembered. “As soon as he got home, he’d work on the moves he learned in practice and would use me to work on the moves, so I was learning as well and he’d show me some things.”
Nelson didn’t start wrestling competitively until fourth grade, so it wasn’t all success when he first started out.
“That first year I got a lot of seconds and thirds, and I remember that it was a struggle because I was wrestling kids who had been wrestling since second grade or kindergarten,” he said. “Matt Roeber and I were friends back then and he’d been wrestling for a while so he whooped up on me for quite a while.”
Nelson proved to be a quick study, especially after his older brother hurt his arm while showing him a Granby roll.
“When we first started wrestling in the basement, he was showing me a Granby boll and he hits it on me and I didn’t know the move and I hyperextended my elbow,” he said. “It really hurt and I was starting to tear up and he looks at me and says ‘If you start crying, mom’s not gonna let us wrestle anymore.’ So I had to suck it up and shake it off because I loved him coming home and showing me those moves. It was something we really bonded over.”
It didn’t take long for the younger Nelson to being showing his talents on the mat. Those seconds and thirds he got when he started out quickly turned into firsts and seconds, and by the time he was in junior high, he was having a lot of success on the mats.
“By sixth grade I think I went undefeated, and in junior high I had just a couple of losses, so I was feeling pretty confident with where I was at,” he said.
Wrestling under then-coach John Murtaugh once he hit the high school ranks, he started out as a 125-pounder but felt he could have a better shot at wrestling in the state tournament if he moved down a weight class.
There was just one problem – his good friend, Roeber, was in the varsity slot at that weight.
“Matt was at 119 and I really had to think about it because we were good friends, but I really felt it was the difference between me qualifying for state and not qualifying,” he said.
Nelson went through with the challenge and won, and the two traded spots on the Blue Devil roster for the rest of that season. It paid off for Nelson, as he not only qualified for state, but finished sixth in Class B in the 2001 state tournament.
Getting on the medal stand was nice, but it wasn’t good enough.
“There were some things, looking back, that I could have done better, but the thing I noticed was that the kids who were ahead of me weren’t doing anything that I couldn’t do,” he said.
With Murtaugh’s encouragement, and a little help from family, Nelson began taking the sport a lot more serious, wrestling freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments and taking advantage of an opportunity his uncle, Tim Tushla, made available.
“My uncle worked for Gateway and he partnered up with Lincoln McIlravy, who was a five-time state champion in South Dakota, a three-time national champion at Iowa and a bronze medalist in the Olympics,” Nelson said. “He was doing video work for some of Lincoln’s training tapes and they put on a bunch of camps in South Dakota and Iowa that were a short driving distance away, and I’d go to these camps and learn these moves from Lincoln, and I really learned a lot from those camps.”
Wrestling with McIlravy and learning more about freestyle wrestling really paid off his sophomore season. He moved back to 125 pounds in 2002 and dominated the field to win his first state title, beating Brandon Mueller of Seward 13-7.
And if you ask any wrestler who has been there, they’ll tell you – nothing beats Championship Saturday at state wrestling, especially if you’re the one getting your hand raised as a champion.
“That first time I took ‘The Walk’ I was just soaking it all in,” he said. “I remember Dana Schuett and I were with some friends and we heard ‘We Are The Champions’ and we just loved that song, and our friends who weren’t wrestlers didn’t know why. Seeing all of the people in Devaney cheering as we walked out to that was just great. It really got my blood going.”
And winning the state title was the cap on a hard year’s worth of work.
“It was like ‘I did it,’” Nelson said. “There was always that doubt in your mind on whether or not you could succeed, and when it happened it was like all that hard work finally paid off.”
The next two years proved to be more of the same for Nelson – even if he needed an attitude adjustment at precisely the right time.
In each of his last two years, he would lose in the district finals to a kid from Omaha Gross and then beat that kid in the championship the following week.
And, in both cases, Nelson said it was a matter of lost focus.
“My head wasn’t in it and I got overconfident and didn’t prepare mentally,” he said. “So, walking into state, I felt I had something to prove again and had to prove that I was better than that kid.”
He did it – twice.
His junior year, he won the Class B 135-pound title with an 18-3 technical fall against Drew Pruscha, then followed it up his senior year with a 12-7 win over Kyle Mixan to win the 140-pound championship, becoming only the 77th wrestler in state history to win three state titles.
There have been 30 three-time champions since Nelson’s trifecta, and while there have been 26 four-time champions in state history (and possibly two more by the end of this week), winning three titles is no small feat and one that, as time has passed, Nelson has learned to appreciate.
“The history thing didn’t really cross my mind when it happened, but a friend stopped by a couple of years ago and gave me a copy of the program from the state meet and it still has my name in there with the list of three-timers and four-timers,” he said. “To see other people look at it and recognize it as quite an accomplishment is really special. All that hard work paid off, and to have people recognize that is really neat.”