BELLEVILLE — Belleville West senior Nate Higgins had everything he needed to become the Class 3A 152-pound state champion during the 2013-14 wrestling season.
With a third-place medal in the 152-pound division the previous year to his credit, Higgins went through a rigorous offseason of daily workouts, monitoring his diet and competing against some of the top high school wrestlers at elite summer tournaments in preparation for a possible run at a state crown.
What Higgins also had was the misfortune of having the No. 1-ranked 152-pound high school wrestler in the nation, (Chicago) Mount Carmel senior Bryce Brill, blocking his path.
And while Higgins gave a valiant effort when the two met in the state title match earlier this year in Champaign, Brill proved to be too much to handle in a 17-6 major decision.
"He (Brill) is obviously a great wrestler who is extremely strong and very physical,'' Higgins said. "But throughout the match, I felt like he didn't want to wrestle me on the mat. He cut me (loose) a few times and there was a point in the second period where I felt like I almost had him in a dangerous situation.
"I don't know, maybe it was just me.''
Despite the loss in his final high school bout, Higgins leaves the Maroons' program with 161 career wins, the second-most in school history behind former teammate Demechico Spraggins, who finished with 165.
Although similar in many ways, Higgins and Spraggins' brilliance on the mat was attained in somewhat different fashions.
Whereas the athletically gifted Spraggins relied on his speed, quickness, strength and natural talent, Higgins lived the lifestyle of what a successful wrestler should be according to West coach Al Sears.
"Nate Higgins is what coaches look for in a high school wrestler. He's a great athlete, who is self-motivated, works hard in the practice room, watches what he eats and does the extra work away from school that you need to be successful in this sport,'' Sears said. "If I had 14 Nate Higgins every year, we would be awfully tough to beat.
"But what makes it better is Nate is a great young man. He's what high school sports are supposed to be about.''
With a record of 47-4 and a second straight top-three finish in the Class 3A 152-pound division to his credit, Higgins has been chosen as the Belleville News-Democrat co-Wrestler of the Year. He shares the honor with Highland senior Tanner Farmer.
Headed to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he will compete for the Cougars, Higgins' is ready for the challenges which await.
"I'm ready for college. I'm excited about it. It's just another step in life,'' Higgins said. "It's going to be kind of cool, because I'll get to find a different level of wrestling that I won't find in high school.
"I feel like the better caliber of wrestler that I compete against, the better I become. I don't feel like I've reached my full potential yet. My goal in college? To be an All-American.''
After a third-place finish at state as a junior, Higgins increased his workout load even more in preparation for his senior campaign.
Attending camps, wrestling in national tournaments in the summer such as the Virginia Beach Nationals, Disney Duals and Illinois State Freestyle Tournament, Higgins was more polished and stronger than he ever had been.
"I remember sitting here last year and saying I wanted to do better than I had the previous season. I was third in state last year and second this. So it was a better year. I did what I could do,'' Higgins said. "I had some rough patches this year, especially during the Hinsdale Tournament and around Christmas time. I had been going pretty much nonstop for nearly a year and I think the mental wear and physical nature of the sport finally caught up to me a little bit.
"I just needed to take a deep breath, take a little break and regroup a little bit. I was fine after that."
A gifted mat wrestler, Higgins also had something most wrestlers don't. He had a unique ability to scramble.
"We call it 'funk' and Nate had it,'' Sears said. "It's the ability to get out of tight situations in a match. Sometimes you'll see a wrestler in a situation on the mat that you don't think he'll be able to get out of. Nate had the wrestling knowledge and the flexibility to get away from an opponent and turn the advantage back in his favor. It's something you don't have naturally. It's something you develop with time and practice in different situations.
"Nate has had a great career at Belleville West and he was just a lot of fun to be around. It's jut unfortunate that he didn't win it all. There is no doubt in my mind that in nine out of 10 years, Nate Higgins wins a state championship. It took the No. 1-ranked 152-pound wrestler in the nation to beat him.''