NEW PALESTINE — As soon as the news broke, the message forums exploded.
Evansville Mater Dei’s Nick Lee was back, wrestling in the IHSWCA Team State Duals in January after 11 months off due to a fractured vertebrae.
Not only was the defending 132-pound state champion competing, the Penn State commit was winning and at his old weight.
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Rumors and speculation whirled through cyberspace, the dream scenario of a potential collision between Lee and New Palestine’s Chad (C.J.) Red in the championship at this weekend’s IHSAA state finals infiltrated the threads, and then it happened.
Lee, a junior who is ranked fourth nationally by InterMat, checked in at 132 for the Evansville Central Sectional after being projected to move up, if he was able to return at all.
He mowed through the sectional, regional and semistate field with nine pins and a 19-1 technical fall of third-ranked Elliott Molloy of Danville.
Wrestling fans lost their minds. Many have called it a “Vision Quest.”
As has been the case the past two years, the doubters came out in full force against the No. 1 nationally ranked Red (40-0), an unbeaten three-time state champion at 179-0 in his high school career.
Not that Red has paid any attention to the posts. He doesn’t have time for that, let alone does he plan to cry about it when he gazes into the mirror.
As one of the most dominant wrestlers the state has ever seen, external distractions collect dust, in silence, wrapped up neatly like the 132 opponents he’s pinned the past four years and six this postseason.
The only thing on Red’s mind is history. The culmination of a journey which began with a perfect 48-0 season and a 106-pound state title in 2013.
“He has his trophies and brackets up on the shelves, but he doesn’t look at that stuff until it’s all over,” New Palestine head coach Chad Red Sr., C.J.’s dad, remarked. “I don’t do the Internet. I don’t let Chad get into that. When you choose not to be part of that, you don’t let negative influences bother you.”
From father to son
If by chance insignificant opinions do slip by, Red Jr. is fueled by them, a trait he learned from his father, “his right-hand man, his coach, his idol,” an All-American at Lincoln Junior College in his home state of Illinois before moving on to the University of Indianapolis.“I see (the naysayers) as a barrier standing in my way,” Red Jr. said referring to lessons handed down to him. “I’m going to knock that barrier down. That’s what I train for, to knock them down.”The seed of Red’s perspective was planted long before he was born, instilled through examples set in the past, especially from his paternal grandfather, Raymond, who passed away from cancer in late 2013.
Raised in Danville, Illinois, Red Sr. breathed wrestling, a passion he adopted from his father directly, one of seven brothers in a family of 14 children.
“We come from a wrestling family. Almost all of my uncles wrestled,” Red Sr. said. “My uncle, Keith Reed, was the first state-place winner in Danville High School history in 1981. That’s just what we always did.”
Raymond set the bar, earning All-American status at Danville Community College before transferring to Western Illinois.
Red Sr. followed a similar path, becoming an Illinois high school state qualifier as a junior and holding a 28-0 record as a senior with 26 pins before academic ineligibility derailed his career.
“Because I didn’t take my grades serious, I lost a valuable opportunity. I went to Lincoln and learned how to be accountable,” Red Sr. said. “I blew my chance to go to Indiana and Illinois because I didn’t pass the ACT test.”
Having to overcome his own self-induced shortfalls, Red Sr. made sure his son didn’t mimic his mistakes. Emphasizing education just as prominently as conditioning in the wrestling room, the goal for C.J. was two-fold.
Discipline and sacrifice now would mean success in the future in wrestling and in life, including a chance to wrestle at the Division I level and possibly some day in the Olympics.
“We did this for a reason, and I don’t want to sound like we don’t care, but it was for the full-ride scholarship first. Everything else is icing on the cake,” Red Sr. said. “If we win, it adds more icing.
“That’s what you work for. You work for your life and what you want to do, but at the same time the accolades mean a lot, especially to (C.J.).”
The prestige earned, however, along with his full scholarship to nationally-ranked Nebraska required more than skill. It demanded fortitude.
While unbeaten in high school, Red Jr. is far from unbeatable, he says.He lost plenty of times as a kid, more than he wants to remember.Even when he got good, defeat cropped up at the national level.
In 2010, he lost at middle school state and at the ISWA Greco tournament. Four years later, Perry Meridian’s Brandon James beat him at the 2014 FloNationals, which led to a fourth-place finish at 120 pounds in Pennsylvania.
Letdowns? Definitely. Prolonged setbacks? Not quite.
In 2015, Red Jr. stormed back, adding an undefeated 47-0 finish in the IHSAA state tournament and a 126-pound title to his 44-0 run and 120-pound crown in 2014.
The All-American won the 126-pound FloNationals championship in 2015, a year after claiming the Cadet Freestyle National and Super 32 titles at the same weight in 2014.
He carried the nation’s top ranking at 126 as a junior and entered his final season as the best at 132-pounder in the country, a moniker he upheld this past summer.
Red Jr. participated in the third annual Who’s #1 event at Grace Hall on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which pitted the nation’s top-four wrestlers head-to-head.
In his first match, he won by decision 5-2 against fourth-ranked Taylor Lamont, a three-time U.S. Cadet World Team wrestler. In the finale, he bested second-ranked Luke Pletcher in overtime, 3-1.
“I know people didn’t see me winning that either. I was heavily doubted to win that than I was to win state,” Red Jr. said. “I went out there and did my thing and had my arm raised after both matches.
“That’s been my all-time goal. I want to be the best in Indiana, the best in the nation. Now that it’s here, I have to finish out this weekend on top.”
One more thrill
In the days leading up to the 2015-16 IHSAA state finals, Red Sr. admits the emotions have gotten the best of him.With 24 minutes of wrestling left for his son, and the death of his father, Red Jr.’s biggest supporter, still fresh followed by the loss of his mother, Lynne, to cancer 14 months later, he’s found focus in coaching his three state qualifiers.But he can’t help but reflect briefly from time to time.
“Grandma was the one that helped start paying for C.J. to go to camp. We used to go to the Cael Sanderson camp (at Penn State) every year,” Red Sr. said. “That camp was $1,000 for seven days. It was expensive. Driving out there and the hotel, it all added up, but it was worth it for C.J., to get him started and we saw it as he got better.”
Now, Red Jr. is on the verge of being one of the best ever — and the first African-American athlete in Indiana history to win four consecutive championships.
A spotlight finale at Bankers Life Fieldhouse would make him the ninth wrestler in state history to win four consecutive and only the third to do it unbeaten.
The first to finish perfect was Lance Ellis (1986-89) with a 172-0 record at Cathedral. The second was Griffith’s Alex Tsirtis (2001-04) at 236-0.
“We have an opportunity to do something special and we’re ready to take on the challenge and knock it down,” Red Sr. said.
Of course, Lee, who Red Sr. coached in the past, will be there to try to play spoiler, among others.
The Mater Dei junior, who is 25 days older than Red Jr., placed third as a freshman at 126 and finished last year a flawless 35-0 to win his first state title.
In 2014, he captured the 132 Cadet Freestyle Nationals championship and was first in both freestyle and Greco in the Pan Am games the same year.
At opposite ends of the state bracket, Lee (13-0) carries an 81-1 career record and a purpose — beating Chad Red.
“He can try,” Red Jr. said. “It’s just another match to me. He has to make it to me first, and I have to make it to him before we can meet in the finals.
“I feel that no one on the planet can beat me. Nobody.”
IHSAA Four-Time State Champions
Name, School, Year, Weight
Estil Ritter, Bloomington: 1924, 175; 1925, 175; 1926, Hwt.; 1927, Hwt.
Willard Duffy, Muncie Central: 1930, 100; 1931, 108; 1932, 115; 1933, 115.
Howard Fisher, South Bend Central: 1949, 95; 1950, 112; 1951, 127; 1952, 133.
Lance Ellis, Indianapolis Cathedral: 1986, 98; 1987, 112; 1988, 112; 1989, 119.
Blake Maurer, Evansville Mater Dei: 2001, 130; 2002, 145; 2003, 171; 2004, 171.
Alex Tsirtsis, Griffith: 2001, 119; 2002, 130; 2003, 135; 2004, 145.
Angel Escobedo, Griffith: 2002, 112; 2003, 125; 2004, 130; 2005, 135.
Jason Tsirtsis, Crown Point: 2009, 125; 2010, 130; 2011, 140; 2012, 145.
State’s Undefeated Four-Time State Champs
Lance Ellis, Indianapolis Cathedral, 172-0 (1986-89).
Alex Tsirtis, Griffith, 236-0 (2001-04).
Name: Alec White
School: New Palestine
Weight Class: 113 pounds
State Ranking: 2nd by IndianaMat.com
2015-16 Achievements: 2nd at Shelbyville Sectional, 1st at Perry Meridian Regional, 1st at New Castle Semistate, 1st at Hoosier Heritage Conference
Previous State Experience: 4th at 106 (2014), state qualifier at 113 (2015)
First-Round Opponent: No. 10 Alex Mosconi (34-3) of Indian Creek
Name: Jared Timberman
School: New Palestine
Weight Class: 145 pounds
State Ranking: 2nd by IndianaMat.com
2015-16 Achievements: 2nd at Shelbyville Sectional, 2nd at Perry Meridian Regional, 3rd at New Castle Semistate, 2nd at Hoosier Heritage Conference
First-Round Opponent: No. 6 Triston Rodriguez (38-3) of Culver Community
Name: Chad Red
School: New Palestine
Weight Class: 132 pounds
Career Record: 179-0
State Ranking: 1st by IndianaMat.com, 1st by InterMat (national ranking)
2015-16 Achievements: 1st at Shelbyville Sectional, 1st at Perry Meridian Regional, 1st at New Castle Semistate, 1st at Hoosier Heritage Conference
Previous State Experience: 1st at 106 (2013), 1st at 120 (2014), 1st at 126 (2015)
First-Round Opponent: No. Daniel Gunsett (37-5) of Bellmont