by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Zimmerman junior Austin May entered the state wrestling tournament with little notoriety, but emerged as the first state champion from District 728 in seven years on Saturday evening.
May, a first-time state entrant, ground out three close decisions Friday and Saturday, then took charge of the championship match right away, ensnaring the left leg of Simley senior Trom Peterson for a quick takedown. May opened a 6-1 lead on the No. 3 ranked Peterson and finished the job 8-4 for the Class AA championship at 182 pounds at the Xcel Energy Center.
“I was ready to wrestle and did what I wanted to do and made my dream come true,” said the thick-chested, 5-foot-9 athlete.
May, who finished 37-7, came into the tournament somewhat under the radar, ranked No. 8 and a section runner-up.
“His losses all been to kids ranked in the top seven or eight, and most of them triple-A,” said coach Pat Burch. “I am so proud of the kid. I knew he had a chance to make a run down here, and maybe place, but he just kept putting it together. He had a heck of a tournament.”
May needed no introduction to the last state champ from the district, Zac Nielsen, also from Zimmerman, who won titles in 2005 and 2007 and is still competing at age 25 with Olympic aspirations.
“Zac came in before sectionals and spent two and a half hours with me and taught me a lot technical stuff,” said May. “It was awesome to have guy like him come and work with me. I really listened to what he said and took it to heart.”
When May went into the stands after the win to hug his parents, he was intercepted by Nielsen, who gave him a big bear hug. Nielsen was also there to watch his brother Carter, who wrestles for Foley and lost in the 152-pound finals.
May also gave huge credit to Thunder coaches for some crucial scouting reports and help with improving his moves.
May’s teammate Hunter Smith, who placed fourth at 132 pounds, added, “Austin has really kicked it down the second half of this year. He has been really working hard. In the last couple weeks, he made a lot of corrections to his stances and his shots.”
On Friday at state, May edged Luverne’s Spencer Oeltjenbruns 4-2 and North Branch’s No. 5 ranked Brian Bertram 3-2.
May pulled out another close one in the semifinals Saturday, 3-1 in overtime over Orono’s No. 4 ranked Jackson Striggow (39-7). After stalemating for six minutes with one escape each, May finally capsized him in the overtime. Striggow took a shot and May countered, snatching up a single leg, then the other.
Striggow had beaten May by three points in a tournament Jan. 24. May and the coaches studied the film.
“The last time, he took me down four times with the exact same takedown, so I knew he was going to try that again,” said May. “So, the last four or five weeks, the coaches worked one-on-one with me, on protecting that outside ‘single’ and defending it …I created a new style, and in that semifinal I got a little payback.”
The championship match was the only one at state where May was in control from start to finish. In the opening seconds he grabbed Peterson’s left leg, hoisted it chest-high and toppled him after about 15 seconds. That was the first of three takedowns by May in the match. He managed another single-leg in the third period and didn’t get the takedown that time but rode him out of bounds.
In the past month, Burch said, May has worked on that single-leg to the point where he has developed a good single leg to go with his high crotch fireman and double leg, making him a more complete wrestler, which paid off at state.
So did some judicious scouting by the Thunder coach staff of potential opponents during the state meet.
“Peterson comes in looking for an under hook, and always starts with his left foot, so we knew to look for outside singles for that guy,” said Burch. “Austin did exactly what he needed to do and got it (single leg) a couple of times.”
May acknowledged: “Thankfully, Coach Burch and all the other coaches took good notes on him. Ten minutes before the match, Coach Burch sat down and gave me a game plan about how he (Peterson) likes to under hook. And he did give me the under hook a couple times. The one time I got takedown off it.”
May said he started to take himself seriously as a state contender when he upset No. 2 ranked Tyler Midas of Foley in a dual meet Jan. 10.
“After I beat him, I built a lot of confidence in myself,” said May. “I knew the work was doing in the wrestling room and weight room would pay off and thankfully it did.”
Midas got May back in the section finals 4-2 with both qualifying for state, where they didn’t cross paths again. Midas placed fourth.
May, also a football fullback and middle linebacker, started to devote himself more to wrestling last spring, Burch noted, by competing in both Greco Roman and freestyle.
Along with May’s powerful physique and attention to technique, Burch praised the wrestler’s mental toughness. May injured his shoulder during the quarterfinals and required lots of ice and massaging in the trainers room. He woke up sore on Saturday and took an injury time-out for a minute the semifinals.
“It was stinging him pretty good, a strained bicep,”‘ said the coach. “But he fought through it. He got the adrenaline going. To me, that’s mental toughness.”
Thunder’s Smith places fourth
Hunter Smith, in his third state trip, not only got his first state wins but brought home a medal after winning three of five matches to place fourth.
“This was better than I’ve ever thought I was going to do. I’m happy to take fourth at state,” said Smith, who was ranked No. 6.
This marks the first time Zimmerman has nabbed two medals the same year. Zac and Jeff Nielsen, Zach Stepan and Mitch Robinson were all solo medalists.
On Friday, Smith beat South St. Paul’s Ryan Duffy 4-0, lost to Tracy-Milroy-Balaton’s Logan Axford 3-1, and beat Cannon Falls’ Connor Rohr 3-0.
Continuing in wrestle backs Saturday, he beat Simley’s Kyle Nordstrom 5-0 with two takedowns, putting him in the third-place match, where he lost 4-2 in overtime to No. 3 ranked Collin Ayers (44-2) of Waterville-Elysian-Morristown/Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton.
In that match, Smith got the first takedown but never got another. “He (Ayers) was great on the bottom. I couldn’t hold him long.” Ayers managed escapes in the second and third periods. In the overtime, Smith took a shot that Ayers countered for the match-winner. “I took most of the shots,” said Smith, “and when that happens, sometimes you make a bad shot.”
Smith finished the season 36-9 and his six-year career with 133 wins.