The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Klessinger: Hidlays show everything good about sports
Photo: NC State’s Hayden (left) and Trent Hidlay were one set of six brothers to wrestle at the 2022 NCAAs. Like Grant and Hunter Willits of Oregon State, this pair of duo siblings each earned All-American honors in Detroit.
By John Klessinger
Watching the placement matches Saturday afternoon at the 2022 NCAA Division I Championships on March 19 , I sat feeling heavy-hearted. I have a similar emotion at the end of every wrestling season; a kind of quiet inner sadness. I remember when my college career ended and recall the mixture of sadness and relief that it was over. All the years of pain and sacrifice, the heartbreaks and exhilarating moments, my mind relived those memories.
I can’t relate to guys like Iowa’s Austin DeSanto, NC State’s Hayden Hidlay or Michigan’s Logan Massa. Those guys and others did things I only dreamt about. All three, multiple-time All-Americans, wrestled at the highest level on the biggest stage in college wrestling. My career paled in comparison. Each of these young men was in contention to win a national title. But unfortunately, none of them attained that goal they set for themselves.
When DeSanto walked off the mat after his third-place win and the end of his career at Iowa, I felt for him. I saw the disappointment on his face. His was tired and beat down. He did all he could in the previous evening’s semifinal loss to Roman Bravo-Young. It just wasn’t meant to be. Probably something he will live with for a long time, if not the rest of his life. I can’t relate to that feeling. I would have been ecstatic if I had placed third in the country.
Following his second win over Michael Kemerer and a third-place finish, Hayden Hidlay was interviewed by ESPN announcer Quint Kessenich. Like DeSanto, you could see on Hidlay’s face disappointment and exhaustion. But he also looked calm. Hidlay’s career culminated with his fifth All-American honor. His first year was his highest placement, losing a semifinals match to Jason Nolf in 2018. He was the No. 2 seed going into the tournament in 2020 before the COVID cancellation. Hayden also placed fourth and fifth, respectively, in 2019 and 2021.
Hayden was humble when he spoke with Kessenich. When asked about his stellar career, he responded, “I wasn’t the best the guy at any year at my weight, but I wasn’t the worst either. But, I tried to be the best. That’s something to hang your head on.” His words were authentic and inspiring. Hidlay demonstrated grace despite never reaching his goal of being a national champion.
Born in Lewistown, Pa., Hayden is the second oldest of four siblings. His oldest brother Heath (26) played defensive back for Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Younger brother Trent (22) is a three-time All-American at NC State. And his youngest sister Lydia (19), is a collegiate field hockey player at Susquehanna University of Pennsylvania.
The four children of Mark and Nikki Hidlay have made their mark on college athletics. The family sports genes start with Mark and Nikki. Mark was a football player (and one year of golf at East Carolina University) at Franklin and Marshall University. Nikki was a high school swimmer and attended Temple University to become a physical therapist.
Hayden’s interview by Kessenich showed wrestlers and fans why we all love the national tournament. It is filled with exciting matches, dogged determination, Cinderella stories, and heartbreak.
“The wrestling is high quality, and the threat of “nobody being safe” makes for entertaining rounds early and throughout,” he said when I asked him why the tournament is special. In addition, he added, “the community aspect of it all.
Generations of fans use it as a vacation, and cheering for their team gains bonds with tons of people in the arena.”
After Hayden lost to Carter Starocci and Trent fell to Aaron Brooks in the semifinals, the brothers and their dad joked about Saturday morning’s consolation semifinals, and placement matches are a “wasteland.”
“Everyone who has to wrestle Saturday morning is beat up, tired, and feeling past dead,” Hidlay said.
The older Hidlay added, “after my brother and I lost Friday night, we started joking and came up with calling the next day’s two matches the ‘Wasteland Invitational.’ There were no longer hopes of us becoming NCAA champions, but we still show up and compete until the very last whistle blows. It is hard to explain how difficult those matches are Saturday morning, but we are too proud to give up.”
This year’s tournament’s landscape was different from the past. It was filled with many six- and seven-year wrestlers. It became even more impressive for a true freshman like Dean Hamiti of Wisconsin, who placed sixth at 165 pounds. The age gap between guys like Kemerer (25) and Jaydin Eierman (24) compared to Hamiti (18) is significant.
“I think it made this NCAA tournament one of the most challenging yet,” Hayden said. Due to COVID, Olympic redshirts and the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility (free year), many weight classes were stacked more with talent than in the past. However, age and experience didn’t trump determination, as we saw quite a few upsets from lesser-accomplished wrestlers. For the first time, the tournament also saw guys win a fifth All-American honor. Along with Hidlay, Myles Amine, Nick Lee, Sebastian Rivera and Kemerer all earned an unprecedented fifth All-American honor.
Part of what makes the NCAA tournament exciting each year is the rivalries. Over the years, wrestlers and fans have enjoyed watching some great rivalries. Kyle Dake and David Taylor or Isaiah Martinez vs. Vincenzo Joseph. During an interview with DeSanto, the announcer told him that Bravo-Young cited him as motivation to keep getting better and working hard.
Like the DeSanto-RBY rivalry, Hidlay had a few guys that “challenged him” to be his best like Nolf, Alec Pantaleo (Michigan), Tyler Berger (Nebraska) and Ryan Deakin (Northwestern). Hayden wrestled Kemerer twice at the NCAAs and often in high school, where both were Pennsylvania state champions.
Shared adversity builds trust. In no other sport, as much as wrestling, do people share adversity. From that, many wrestlers form strong bonds and respect for each other. It is the nature of the sport. I see it at the high school level as equally as at the collegiate level. Guys who wrestled each other during the season or off-season, even from different teams, become good friends.
Throughout the NCAA tournament, you would see the mutual respect among opponents and wrestlers from other teams. Outside of the matches, it is neat to see that at the NCAA tournament. At the end of the day, they were all in Detroit to reach a goal they set for themselves many years prior.
The NCAA tournament highlights a raw demonstration of perseverance. Keep fighting and charging ahead. Regardless of winning or losing, “compete to the last whistle.” I think all of us can learn something from that mentality. That mindset is what separates good from the great in life.
What’s next for guys like Hidlay once their career is over?
Wrestling doesn’t have a professional league. The best wrestlers these days are making a living by competition only. Kyle Snyder, Jordan Burroughs, and a few others have garnered enough success and popularity to make wrestling an occupation.
Most, though, never will make enough money from competing. The endorsements are not there.
But deep inside, most wrestlers are yearning to pass on to others what they learned. To give back to a sport that has given them so much. I am no different. Wrestling has given me so much. I want to give back to wrestling by coaching. I want to help kids like me, years ago, be a better version of themselves.
Guys like Hidlay will do the same. They will take what they learned — the good and bad — and impart it onto the next generation of wrestlers.
“It is hard moving from high school to college,” said Hidlay. “There is a steep learning curve. But learning to accept those struggles and not lose yourself during those times is something I hope to help athletes with as a coach.”
There is so much more to the NCAA tournament than what we see from our couches at home. Of course, I am biased, but what other event showcases all of the qualities in its competitors we want for our own children or even ourselves. Approximately 320 wrestlers left Detroit without a championship and 250 of them left without an All-American award.
But they left with something only a tiny percentage of people ever experience in a lifetime: experiencing a “wasteland” filled with tired and beat up wrestlers, which is why we love the sport.
It’s why we love the national tournament, which is a lot like life — filled with ups and downs. Regardless of what happens, you wrestle and live life until the final whistle.
(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)