When Jeremy Spates was hired as the new wrestling coach at Southern Illinois University. one of his primary goals was to recruit and land the top local wrestlers for the Cougars program.
With the recent signing of Belleville West senior Nate Higgins, Spates is off to a good start.
Third in the 152-pound class at the Class 3A State Tournament a year ago, Higgins made it official last week when he chose SIUE over more high-profile programs such as Kent State, Central Michigan and Nebraska.
"The schools I looked at were all great schools with good wrestling programs. But I just didn't connect,'' Higgins said. "SIUE is a growing program and I wanted to be part of that.
"With coach Spates, I felt comfortable. I think SIUE is a place where I can continue to grow and get better as a wrestler while also getting a great education.''
With a career mark of 113-19, Higgins set a Maroons record for victories in a season last year when he finished 49-3. He picked up the third-place medal in one of the state's toughest weight classes.
Higgins, who suffered a rare loss to Vince Dietz of Lockport last weekend, is ranked fifth in the 160-pound class. Higgins will drop to 152 pounds for the state series later this winter.
"I would rather see him (Higgins) lose in December rather then in February,'' West coach Al Sears said. "Being a former wrestler at SIUE, I think Nate made a great decision.
"When you talk about Jeremy Spates, you are talking about one of the top young wrestling coaches in the nation and the guy who was Kyle Dake's workout partner at Cornell (University) for four years when he was an assistant coach there. From a selfish standpoint, I'm glad Nate is going to SIUE so that I can go watch one of my former wrestlers compete at the (NCAA) Division I school.''
Dake was the nation's first wrestler to win four NCAA titles at four different weight classes. He was named the 2012-13 Sports Illustrated Male College Athlete of the Year.
Higgins is a welcome addition to the SIUE wrestling family for Spates.
"Nate was a great sign for us," Spates said in a press release. "Nate is a big name in Illinois, and we really want to keep the local talent at home. This is a priority for me as the talent here in our backyard is tremendous.
"As well as being a big name, Nate is a wonderful young man who knows how to work for what he wants. We are excited to see what he can do in the future.''
Higgins began wrestling at the age of 5 with the Belleville Little Devils Wrestling Team and has been heavily involved in the sport ever since.
"Coach Spates has worked with many of the top wrestlers in the nation, Higgins said. "He's someone I feel I'll be able to learn a lot from.''
A three-year starter for the Maroons, Higgins also competes in tournaments all year long.
Ranked No. 17 nationally at 152 pounds by Win Magazine, Higgins helped Team Illinois at the NWCA/USA Wrestling Scholastic Duals to a national championship. He also has earned All-American status at the USAW Folkstyle Nationals and the Disney Duals.
Higgins went 8-2 at the Disney Duals.
With his college decision made, Higgins can get back to the task at hand for his senior season -- the state title.
"That's one of the goals. First, I'd like to win the regional. That would be four in a row,'' Higgins said. "I'm excited about college wrestling. SIUE is close enough to where I can get home if I get homesick and my family will be able to come and see me wrestle.''
Higgins is the son of Patrick and Michelle Higgins. He will major in computer science and engineering.