Working at the state wrestling meet certainly gives you a different perspective than simply attending as a fan. I learned that for the first time this year.
I spent a lot of time on the floor, surrounded by the crowd, up close to the action. I spent time in the tunnel, seeing the intense emotion that the wrestlers dealt with, both good and bad. Every competitor there spent the past three months or more cutting weight, practicing and battling with every opponent just to earn a spot at the meet with the goal of returning home with a gold medal around their neck.
For most, that dream was crushed. Just 56 wrestlers realized that dream of being the champion. However, one thing I learned was that state wrestling defines champions in other ways than just the color of the medal around their neck.
No other wrestler exemplified that more than West Holt’s Jake Judge.
Most, if not all, of the folks reading this have heard his story. In case you hadn’t, let me give you the Cliff Notes version. In the championship match of his district meet the week before state, Judge was accused of biting his opponent and was disqualified, subsequently disqualifying him from the state meet, despite finishing among the top four in his district. After an appeal from the West Holt administration and staff, Judge was graciously reinstated by the NSAA a few days later.
On Thursday, he hit the mat like a man possessed. He won his two bouts fairly easily. He looked to be poised to make a run at the finals until he ran into Cole Aschoff, who knocked Judge out of contention. Fortunately, he rebounded and finished third at 145 pounds.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jake afterward. The full conversation will be released in a story soon enough, but I don’t think I can do real justice to him and his outlook on the whole situation. I talk to young athletes on a regular basis and many of them are very gracious and humble kids. However, Judge absolutely blew me away.
Here was a young man who nearly had everything he worked for taken away from him in his senior year. He had every opportunity to be spiteful and bitter, especially after watching the same wrestler that he was disqualified against win the state championship. He could have joined in the loudest chorus of boos I have ever seen an individual high schooler receive in competition. He could have at least frowned.
Judge did none of those things. He was simply grateful for the opportunity he was given. He had a natural smile on his face before, during and after every match at state. He actually admitted to me that he really isn’t very good at not smiling. He made a point to compliment each of his opponents at the meet. He knew that each one of those kids had earned the right to be there, just as he had, through their hard work and dedication, and he appreciated that, no matter who came out on top.
He was a bit of a celebrity at the meet, as his story had clearly made it’s way across the state. Many people saw the video of the alleged biting incident on Facebook and formulated their opinion. He had folks cheering his name from all corners of the arena, many of whom he admitted he had never met before. That could have made his head swell a bit. However, he simply thought it was neat and admitted it was a bit strange.
The most incredible moment, however, came during the medal ceremony. Jake took the stand along with five other medalists. One of those wrestlers ended his chance for a state championship the day before. One nearly ended it a week before. At a time that many other wrestlers were posing for pictures with their new swag, Jake kept being Jake.
He applauded when the sixth-place finisher was given his medal. Then the fifth and fourth-place finishers. He took his medal with a smile. Then he applauded Aschoff when he got his runner-up medal. When the championship medal was given out - to the same wrestler who nearly ended his season a week too early - Judge didn’t change his attitude one bit. He smiled, clapped and then stepped off the stand and shook each competitor’s hand.
He didn’t hold a visible grudge. Despite all he had gone through that week - the highs and the lows - he stuck to his morals. He continued to be the humble, grateful young man he has been all season long. When many other wrestlers are understandably dealing with anger, sadness or pride, Judge stayed humble. He was an example of how young athletes should handle adversity.
Heck, he was an example of how many of us adults should handle adversity. He didn’t let it set him back, change his morals or grow spiteful. He stayed Jake. He was one of the truest champions of the meet.
Good for you, Jake.
There are many strong athletic conferences across the state this year. However, I think it is pretty safe to say, at least among the Class C and D levels, that few are deeper then the Niobrara Valley Conference.
From top to bottom, the conference is full of talented squads. With the Niobrara Valley Conference kicking off this week, that is even more evident.
Lets start on the girls side of things. Elgin Public/Pope John and Elkhorn Valley have been incredible successful all season long. However, entering the tournament, they were seeded fourth and seventh, respectively. It is incredible to me to think that there are three teams in the entire state better than the Wolfpack, let alone in the conference. That shows just how good teams like St. Mary’s, the top seed, Chambers/Wheeler Central and North Central are.
The Wolfpack have been as dominant as any team this season, averaging 55 points a game while holding opponents to just 36 each night. They have lost just twice. Yet, the Cardinals, Renegades and Knights all have done just as good.
Elkhorn Valley has been one of the few teams that have shown the ability to take the Wolfpack to the wire. Yet, in their first-round showdown with Ewing, they were taken to the wire as well, needing two overtimes to beat the Tigers. They are led by arguably the most talented sophomore trio in the class, regardless of sport, in Sierra Rystrom, Amber Miller and Hannah Ollendick. When those three get clicking, they can beat anyone on any given night.
On the boys side, one can look at Neligh-Oakdale’s talented squad and understandably consider them a top team in the state. However, they entered the tournament as the three seed behind Boyd County and CWC, a squad that was upset by an underrated West Holt team on Monday night. The scoring abilities of Tyson Belitz, Grant White and Alex Kerkman combined with the inside presence of Chris Bentley and Austin Rice is unmatched in the class. However, they still were taken to the wire by an incredibly gifted Niobrara/Verdigre team that was given the sixth seed. In any other conference, the Cougars, who in my opinion have one of the best mixtures of post players and back court players in Northeast Nebraska, would have been a top-two seed.
All of that considered, that is just the top half of the bracket. Clearwater-Orchard’s girls have had a roller coaster year simply because they play in such a tough conference. Kinzly Macke and Kylie Thiele have led an incredibly resilient squad this year and they were barely able to sneak away from Stuart on Saturday to open tournament play. When teams with players like Macke and Thiele or Harlee Fischer and Trisha Fox of Stuart are ranked as the 8th and 9th best teams in the conference, you know you are stacked.
Neligh-Oakdale’s girls are led by senior Kinsley Klabenes and speedster Bailey Frey. Yet, it seems like a different girl is able to step up every night and help push the Warrior’s opponents to the limit, despite their record.
Lets not forget about the O-C boys as well, who were ranked 11th in the field and nearly came away with an upset of Niobrara/Verdigre in the first round. The talented team is young but is ready to pull of a shocker on any given night thanks to the talents of Travis Kerkman, Jacob Long, Chris Lester, Liam Odell and Blake Hoke.
EPPJ’s boys are another young team that seems to show improvement every time they step on the court. They are led by big man Kenny Bush and the athletic Chad Bode. However, the heart of the team is the underclassmen that seem to grow weekly. Ashton Evans is a sharpshooter, as is Hunter Reestman.
Elkhorn Valley is the 13th seed on the boys side, yet they are another team that can beat you on any given night. They have more double-doubles than any other team in Antelope County. Brayden Effle and Kalen Dittrich are rebounding machines, while players like Tucker Hecht and Austin Miller guide an offense that, when they are hot, can score in bunches.
The first round knocked out quite a few area teams and many more will see their dreams of a conference championship dashed on the way to Saturday’s championship games. However, not a single team should feel shame for competing the way they do against a conference like the NVC.
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