NEW PALESTINE — Before the match that would define his career, his coaches gave him the rundown.
Right before the NCAA championship tournament match, Chad “C.J.” Red joined his coaches in the practice room.
His opponent had one strong shot, and Red would have to defend against the attack right off the bat, they said. When you feel him gas out, that’s when it’s time to make your move.
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This was Red’s chance to become an All-American, they told him.
They knew he could do it. So did he.
New Palestine graduate Red, an undefeated four-time wrestling IHSAA state champion for the Dragons from 2013-16, became the first All-American in Dragons wrestling history after placing seventh at the NCAA championships Saturday.
As the match started, his opponent made the shot right on cue. Red sprawled as the whistle blew, keeping the national competitor at bay by holding him in a front headlock. Two minutes in, Red saw his chance to turn the tables; he flipped him over with a match-ending “cement mixer.”
“I already had his chin and the underhook, and I just sort of felt it,” Red said. “I rolled as hard as I could and pinned him.”
Red, now a redshirt freshman at 141 pounds for Nebraska, pinned Oklahoma State’s two-time defending NCAA champion, Dean Heil, in 2:22 for the tournament’s consolation fourth round.
He then secured his seventh- place national ranking after defeating Eastern Michigan’s Sa’Derian Perry in 7:00; moments before the final whistle blew.
Red was winning 7-2 before flipping Perry on his back as the third period of the match was about to end, bumping up Nebraska in team standings from 10th to eighth.
“I looked back at the clock, and there was 13 seconds left when I saw his arm flail, so I just ran him over,” Red said.
The Cornhuskers ended 23-11 in the NCAA championships, with Red finishing his redshirt freshman season with a 26-11 record overall.
The New Palestine native was undefeated throughout high school, finishing with a career total of 183-0, having competed at 106, 120, 126 and 132 lbs.
Today, Red is ranked seventh nationally in his weight class. He is the Nebraska’s eighth unseeded All-American, and he is New Pal’s first.
Al Cooper, New Palestine’s athletics director, said he is immensely proud yet not surprised by Red’s continued success in his collegiate wrestling career. Watching Red win four consecutive state championships in high school had everyone in the school system expecting greatness from him after graduation; and Red delivered, he said.
Cooper witnessed Red’s competitive drive, firsthand; his accomplishments in high school speak for themselves, but it’s been exciting to watch Red come into his own career in college as well, Cooper said.
“The thing about C.J., to me, he rises to the occasion,” Cooper said. “He’s seated at seventh in the nation; you just don’t see unseeded wrestlers do that kind of thing.”
“We’re very proud of his accomplishments,” Cooper added. “He continues to represent New Palestine High School greatly.”
The Nebraska sophomore is studying psychology and plans to pursue his masters in sports management, Red said. He hopes to look into becoming a college wrestling coach one day.
Competing at Nebraska is a new world with new challenges, Red said. Everybody he’s gone up against has fought relentlessly, and there are no easy wins. Once you’re competing in the NCAA, there aren’t many pushover matches, he said.
The encouragement from his father — who was his coach in high school — and from other friends and family back at New Pal motivate him to face every new challenge head on, Red added.
“It’s an honor to be out here doing my thing, still representing and still getting support from people back home,” Red said.
Becoming an All-American was a great feeling, but Red doesn’t plan to spend too much time celebrating, he said. His father and coaches are excited for him, but there’s still plenty of work to get back to.
“I just know I’m not done,” Red said. “The sky’s the limit, and I know I can do better than seventh.”