Cael Hughes turned past pains into becoming WIN’s Jr. Hodge winner

Updated: May 8, 2023

Photo: Cael Hughes (top) started his final high school season at Stillwater, Okla., by defeating Sergio Lemley of Mt. Carmel (Ill.) High School, 5-2, for the 132-pound title at the 2022 Walsh Jesuit Ironman last December. (Sam Janicki photo)

By Tristan Warner

Shortly after winning his second-straight Oklahoma state high school championship as a sophomore in 2021, Cael Hughes aggravated an already nagging back injury at a national freestyle event. 

Hughes made the difficult decision to get surgery, which left him unable to wrestle for six months, and forego his chances at Fargo that summer.

But for those who know Hughes, especially Stillwater High School head coach Ethan Kyle, it came as no surprise to see the Pioneer phenom present at every single spring and summer workout watching and studying technique despite being unable to partake in any physical activity. 

According to Kyle, it is that level of discipline, professionalism and commitment that helped propel Hughes to an unbeaten prep career that saw the future Oklahoma State Cowboy post a remarkable 123-0 mark while capturing four Oklahoma 6A state titles.

Adding to that list, Hughes has now been named the recipient of the 2023 WIN Magazine Junior Dan Hodge Trophy, given to the most dominant high school wrestler in America each season and named after the late Danny Hodge, also a native of Oklahoma who won three NCAA titles for Oklahoma in the 1950s.

The Junior Dan Hodge Trophy is presented annually to the nation’s best high school wrestler by Resilite and Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. Hodge, who passed away in 2020, never allowed a takedown in his college career and pinned 36 of his 46 opponents.

“Cael has been tremendous during his career,” the Stillwater head coach said. “To be recognized for all his hard work is really gratifying. We try not to make too big of a deal about awards that are voted on, but this award is exceptional and truly humbling.”

For Hughes himself, the award is indicative not only of his work ethic but also the goals he sets for himself every time he steps onto a wrestling mat. 

“It feels pretty good to see all my hard work in the room and extra practices pay off,” he said. “For me, it is just about stepping on the mat and putting on a show and putting up points. I have tunnel vision and do my thing and have fun. I don’t think about winning or losing.”

Hughes faced his share of adversity during his high school campaign, perhaps nothing more troubling than the back injury. But he also competed during the COVID pandemic, which inhibited certain opportunities for premier competition such as the prestigious Walsh Ironman tournament up until his senior year.

Still, he remained focused on getting the best competition above all else, putting his unbeaten career record on the line if it meant seeking out the best opponents possible. 

“For Cael, it has always been about the competition and wrestling the best guys,” Kyle said. “After not wrestling for six months, his first match back, he bumped up to take on Zach Blankenship (a three-time Oklahoma state champion). We never made too much of the record but just wanted him to live up to the team’s standards and the standards he set for himself.”

Hughes capped off his storied career this season with a 39-0 season mark that included 21 pins as he also captured the Walsh Ironman title in December and defeated four nationally-ranked opponents on the season, including Jayce Caviness (Bixby, Okla.) three times, Matt Botello (Pennsylvania), Vincent Robinson (Illinois) and Sergio Lemley (Illinois). 

Hughes then went on to represent Team USA in the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic in late March, where he defeated Pennsylvania’s three-time state champion Jaden Pepe, 6-0. 

Both Kyle and the Hughes attribute much of the Junior Hodge Trophy winner’s success to his parents Jeremy and Lisa Hughes. 

“His parents are really solid folks,” Kyle mentioned. “Sometimes you have to work hard for a very long time before you see the results you want, and I think they helped instill those virtues in him.”

Cael echoed similar sentiment.

“My dad always taught me to do things the right way,” he said. “He said to always give more than everyone else. I hold myself to a higher expectation, not just in the room but just in life. I like doing things the right way. That is just who I am. My supporters around me hold me to that standard.”

Hughes becomes the fifth Oklahoma prep wrestler to earn the prestigious distinction, joining Daton Fix (2017) of Sand Springs, Chris Perry (2009) from Stillwater, Teyon Ware (2002) from Edmond North and the first winner Shane Roller (1998) of Bixby. 

As Hughes turns the page and prepares for his collegiate career at Oklahoma State to take flight, he won’t need to travel far. And that is exactly what he has always wanted. 

“Growing up in Stillwater, it was always my dream to wrestle at Oklahoma State. A lot of the guys I grew up watching were my kids club coaches. There are great people and great coaches surrounding me here. I grew up being inspired to wrestle there some day, so I set my mind to it.”

Kyle has no doubt Hughes will make his mark on the national collegiate scene just as he already has at the interscholastic level. 

“I think the person he has become through his moral compass, work ethic and discipline and knowing what activities are worth his time, it takes that individual to live up to that high level of stress and work needed to get to that level, but he has built the right vessel to make the trip,” Kyle said. “He has a great mind that is open to adjusting, learning and reprogramming technically and physically to make the changes to be better.”

“The way I see it, I am just going to keep doing what I am doing,” Hughes reiterated. “Be consistent and stay driven. Stay focused and stay consistent.”