Eden Prairie wrestler Zytavius Williams stood under the bright lights of the Xcel Energy Center Saturday night with his arms in the air.
The sophomore had just defeated Mason Mills of St. Michael-Albertville 4-3 in overtime to win the state championship in the 120-pound class.
Moments later, in the corridors under the seats, where scores of wrestlers were entering and exiting the arena floor and preparing for matches, Williams had a moment to reflect on what it all meant.
“I guess hard work, dedication and doing things when people aren’t watching you,” he said. “Like running and stuff. That’s what I’m getting my cardio from, but it’s really hard to put in words.”
Williams used that conditioning to his advantage to win the title match, which went into overtime after a grueling six minutes of regulation.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to take him down in the first overtime,” he said. “But I knew I had this cardio and stamina to go any overtime and he doesn’t have the cardio.”
Before transferring to Eden Prairie prior to the season, Williams wrestled at Minneapolis South, where he lost in the first round in the Class 2A state tournament last March. He’s flown under the radar in his first year with the Eagles, while quietly advancing to the ultimate prize.
“He’s kind of been the underdog at his weight class,” Eagles head coach Marcus LeVesseur said. “He’s been working through these rounds and just collecting victories.”
In addition to Williams’ 120-pound title, the Eagles brought home two runners-up and two third-place finishes from the tournament.
Junior Will Sather (44-2) was defending his crown after becoming the first wrestler in state history to win the 285-pound title as a sophomore in last year’s tournament.
Sather defeated Blake Clemons of Hastings with a 5-2 decision in the semifinal match on Saturday to reach the finals against Vincent Mueller of St. Thomas Academy.
Mueller (44-3) had given Sather his only defeat of the regular season. The Cadet got the better of the Eagle once more in the championship match, winning by fall at 2:47, while Sather brought home the runner-up medal.
Junior Terae Dunn (35-5) defeated Eli Davis (40-8) of St. Michael-Albertville in an 11-2 major decision to reach the state finals of the 145-pound class.
Dunn was looking for his first state title after finishing runner-up in the Nevada state wrestling tournament last season.
In the championship match, Dunn was upended by Anoka’s Elijah Paulson (44-2) in a 10-3 decision.
“I definitely feel like I could have done more,” said Dunn. “Especially getting caught on my back in the last 30 seconds, I could have avoided that and got two.”
Junior Dominic Heim (29-5) captured third place in the 220-pound class after defeating Antonio Menard of Lakeville North in a 5-3 decision.
“I won my last match of the season. And I wrestled as hard as I could all tournament so that’s about all I can do,” Heim said after his victory.
Heim, who bench presses 400 pounds and deadlifts 600, is a starting linebacker on the Eagles football team that made it to the state semifinals in November. His victory to take third at state may have been the final wrestling match of his career.
“I was wrestling like it could be my last time here, in case I have to graduate early to go play football,” he said. “So I wrestled every match as hard as I could, because there’s a good chance this could be my last time wrestling here at Xcel.”
There was no better story of the Eagles’ wrestling season than that of senior Jacory Bates, who suffered a torn lateral collateral ligament (LCL) before the season began.
Bates, who will attend Minnesota State Mankato next year on a football scholarship, refused to miss his senior wrestling season.
“It’s just a true testament to who he is as a young man,” LeVesseur said. “A lot of kids could have just said, ‘you know what, I’m going to school for football next year. I tore my LCL so I’m just gonna call it quits.’ But instead, he fought back with his brothers on the mat.”
Bates (21-3) was able to return to the mat in early February. Exactly one month later, he was wrestling for a third-place medal in the 160-pound class at the state tournament.
”Every day, I was trying to do something more to get better every day,” he said. “One percent each day, just try to get better.”
The persistence paid off for Bates, who defeated Apollo Ashby of Mounds View in a 10-4 decision to place third in the state.
“It feels great, it feels fantastic,” Bates said. “I fell short here last year, and to come in and take third in the state is unbelievable.
“This means a lot to me because at one point I didn’t even know if I was gonna wrestle again or not.”
After his victory, Bates was greeted in the tunnel with a giant hug from his father, Titus Bates, the Eagles assistant wrestling and football coach. The highly-charged, emotional moment left the elder Bates to reflect on the long journey he’s enjoyed with his eldest son.
“It was since second grade, every practice, every tournament, we’ve been there together,” Bates said, fighting back tears. “He’s never missed a practice since the second grade to 12th grade, never missed a day.
“And that moment, embracing him, I knew it was over. So that moment was our way of saying, ‘I love you, man. I love you and it’s been a great ride.’ He’s going into that next chapter as a great young man.”
Eagles shine in year of success
Also competing in state were seventh-grader Anthony Heim at 106 pounds; senior Jafari Vanier at 138 pounds; senior London Bui at 152 pounds; and junior Julian Berg at 195 pounds.
Nine wrestlers, nine stories of accomplishment and a season of hard work. It all culminated in a trip to the state tournament, where nearly 54,000 fans entered the gates over the course of three days in St. Paul.
“It’s great,” Jacory Bates said. “Playing at the Bank for football was a lot of fun, but this is just like a different level. There’s probably 10 times the amount of people and everybody in the wrestling community is so passionate about it. So it really makes you feel good.”
LeVesseur knows all about state wrestling tournaments. He was a four-time state individual champion at Minneapolis Roosevelt and Bloomington Kennedy before building a perfect 155-0 record wrestling at Augsburg.
“The wrestling community is very large and small at the same time,” he said. “And if you’re a wrestler you know that, and it’s just a fun atmosphere to see all the work pay off.”
In his first year as head coach at Eden Prairie, LeVesseur’s work has paid off by bringing nine wrestlers to state, capturing one individual championship, two runners-up and two third-place finishes. The Eagles No. 4 ranking, with a narrow miss at the section team championship, has made for a very successful inaugural season.
But if you ask LeVesseur what success looks like, he’ll tell you it comes in the arena, where young wrestlers compete.
“Someone’s gonna win, someone’s gonna lose, someone’s cheering, someone’s crying,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just the effort and the lessons that you learn through the battles. And so that’s kind of what I look forward to in teaching these young men.”
LeVesseur quickly adds that he says “men” because the Eagles wrestling program doesn’t have female wrestlers – yet.
“So I teach these young men,” he continued. “To accept the challenges and just go fly [pause]like an eagle, right?” Adding with a smile, “just go fly.”
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