Belleville West senior Nate Higgins has never been one to cave in when presented with a challenge on the wrestling mat. Especially a verbal one.
Ranked third in the Class 3A 152-pound division by Illinois Best Weekly, Higgins took a verbal challenge from Edwardsville's Chris Prosser, then put the Tigers' sophomore away in 29 seconds when he won the Granite City Regional title last week.
"I read in the paper where he (Prosser) said he was going to take it too me,'' Higgins said with a smile. "I had a good regional tournament and now I'm looking forward to the sectional and state meets. I wouldn't be surprised if I saw him (Prosser) in the sectional final again this week.''
Third at 152 pounds at the 2013 Class 3A state tournament and second in West history with 155 career wins, Higgins will lead a group of six Maroons into competiton beginning Friday at the Normal West Sectional.
Two rounds of action will be held Friday, with semifinals, third place and championship matches Saturday. The top four wrestlers in all 14 weight classes advance to the state wrestling tournament, Feb. 20-22 in Champaign.
No matter what happens during the next 10 days, Higgins' place as one of the top wrestlers in West history is secure.
"What makes Nate Higgins so good is that he lives the lifestyle of a wrestler,'' Maroons coach Al Sears said. "He watches his diet, he gets up at 5 a.m. every morning to lift weights, he comes to practice and works hard and he does the extra work that the great wrestlers do.
"As a coach, I wish I had 14 Nate Higginses on this team. He knows what it takes to be successful in this sport.''
The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville recruit is hoping to be the second Maroon in as many years to win a state title, joining former teammate DeMechico Spraggins as a champion.
Spraggins, now a freshman at Arizona State University, won the 138-pound crown last year.
Standing in Higgins' path are, among others, second-ranked Matt Rundell of Oak Park-River Forest and top-ranked Bryce Brill of (Chicago Mount Carmel.
Brill, a Northwestern University recruit, is the top-ranked 152-pound wrestler in the nation. Brill won the 145-pound state title a year ago.
"I have never wrestled Brill. But I've seen him. And Rundell beat me in a close match earlier this year at the Hinsdale Central Tournament,'' Higgins said. "They are both great wrestlers, but they are both beatable.
"Mentally is where Brill gets to his opponents. He's very strong and physical and he's very aggressive. He likes to come out hard early and score a lot of points in the first period. My goal, if we wrestle, is to stay close to him early. I don't think he's had many close matches this year.
"I can win the state tournament and that's my goal. But I want to be in the top three for sure. Third last year, if I finished any lower, that would be tough to take.''
Sears toyed with and discussed with Higgins the possibility of moving up to the 160 earlier in the season.
Higgins quickly put that idea to rest.
"The kid currently ranked No. 1 at 160 pounds is Kamal Bay of Oak Park-River Forest and Nate beat him 1-0 and 14-4 last year. So I asked him (Higgins) if he wanted to go up to 160,'' Sears said. "He said he wanted to stay at 152 and wrestle Brill. He's the kind of kid who wants to wrestle the best. He's not backing down from a challenge.''
Higgins isn't thinking about the end of his high school career.
"I really haven't,'' Higgins said. "After the state tournament, I'm going to wrestle in the high school nationals and then I'm going to wrestle all summer to get ready for college."