Thomas Gantt was just 18 years old when he set out for Raleigh, North Carolina and North Carolina State University in the late summer of 2011.
Growing up across the Mississippi River from the Gateway Arch in Cahokia, Gantt was one of the top wrestlers in the metro-east during his senior year of high school. He placed second in the Class 2A 140-pound weight division at the IHSA State Wrestling Tournament.
But Gantt’s ability to make adjustments — as he did so easily on the mat — was tested when he chose to become a member of the North Carolina State wrestling program. Leaving the inner city for Raleigh and the Atlantic Coast Conference, a place where college basketball was and always will be No. 1, Gantt would be more than 800 miles from home and the familiar wrestling mats in the Cahokia High School gym annex.
Five years later and one of the top college wrestlers — in any weight class — in the nation, Gantt’s adjustment to the southern style of life is complete. Although he misses Cahokia and calls his mom every day, the 23-year-old Wolfpack red-shirt senior has his college degree and is five wins away from the 2016 NCAA Division I national championship at 157 pounds.
“I really love it here now. It was tough in the beginning being away from home, but I knew what I wanted and I was willing to do whatever it took to reach my goals,’’ Gantt said. “I’m in a good place surrounded by good caring people, great teammates and coaches.
“I get home — not as often as I would like — but I talk to my mom and family every day. The southern hospitality has been great since I got here. People are really friendly.”
Winner of the 157-pound championship at the ACC Tournament and the first NC-State wrestler in history to win a title at the famed Midlands Wrestling Tournament this season, Gantt heads into the NCAA Division I Tournament on March 17-19 in New York City with a perfect 24-0 record and the No. 4 ranked 157-pound wrestler.
The trip to New York City is Gantt’s first and he can’t wait to compete for a national championship in one of the most famous sports venues in the world — Madison Square Garden.
“I’m very excited and looking forward to competing in such a famous sports arena,’’ Gantt said. “I was a little banged up earlier in the year, but I’m ready and healthy right now.I feel like I’m peaking at the right time. I’m not going to get ahead of myself. It’s one match at time.”
Going out on top
Gantt, who will take on Andrew Morse (8-5) of Northern Illinois University in his first round match, will be making his second trip to the NCAA National Tournament.
In the 2013-14 season — his first in the 157-pound weight class — Gantt finished 35-10, upset the No. 10 seed and finished just one win away from earning all-American honors. Gantt wrestled in the 149-pound division his first two years at NC State, winning 28 of 49 matches.
“I was learning and it was tough the first year especially because I wasn’t used to college wrestling. At the Division I level, everybody is good and I needed to get bigger and stronger. It just took time,” Gantt said.
After his breakout season, Gantt took his red-shirt season in 2015. Although not able to compete, Gantt practiced with the team and competed as an independent in open tournaments. Gantt finished 23-1 and won four of the five open tournaments in which he entered.
“Last year was tough because I didn’t feel like I was helping the team,” Gantt said. “But I think it helped me stronger both physically and mentally. I was able to figure some things out and I became a better wrestler. I think in the past I was more of a counter wrestler. This year I’m more aggressive. I’m going for my shots more and I’m taking everything in more. I’m enjoying the competition and just having fun wrestling.”
The proof is in Gantt’s results.
Ranked in the top four in every major poll, Gantt has wrestled and beaten all challengers. Of his 24 wins this season, 10 have come against wrestlers who are ranked nationally. Perhaps Gantt’s biggest challenge came against Cody Pack of South Dakota State. Ranked seventh in the nation, Pack fell 4-2 to Gantt in the title match at the Midlands Championship.
“That was a thrill to win a big tournament like the Midlands. I got a takedown early and was able to beat him (Pack),’’ Gantt said. “Winning that tournament and then winning the ACC championships gave me a lot of confidence.
University of Illinois sophomore Isiah Martinez is the No. 1 seed in the 157-pound weight class. Gantt has not wrestled him this season.
“They (Illinois) were supposed to be at the Midlands but something happened and they didn’t show,’’ Gantt said. “If we both win our first two matches, I would get Pack in the quarterfinals and I’m sure that would be a tough match. But it’s the NCAA Division I championships. Everybody is very good.”
The Cahokia days
Gantt is a 2011 graduate of Cahokia where he advanced his skills under the watchful eye of the Comanches talented coach Khris Whelan. Also one of the top wrestlers in metro-east history, Whelan is a Granite City native who went on to become one of the all-time great wrestlers at the University of Missouri where he, like Gantt, won the Midlands championship.
“I just talked to coach (Whelan) a few days ago and he reminded me that we might be the only area wrestlers to win the Midlands. It is a very prestigious tournament and to win it gave me a lot of confidence going into the ACC Tournament and now the NCAA’s,” Gantt said. “Coach (Whelan) helped me with my wrestling and the advice he gave was to enjoy the moment and just continue to do what I’m doing.”
At Cahokia, Gantt was a two-time Class 2A State Tournament medal winner, placing third in the 130-pound class as a junior, then placing second in the 140 pound weight class as a senior. The wrestler who placed third in the 140-pound weight division at the 2011 state finals — University of Missouri redshirt junior Lavion Mayes of Mascoutah — will also be a national title contender at Madison Square Garden next week.
A two-time NCAA Tournament qualifier and an All-American a year ago when he placed seventh in the 141-pound weight class, Mayes is the No. 3 seed in the 149-pound weight class.
Gantt, who graduated from N.C. State in December with a degree in social work, is currently taking graduate school classes. After the NCAA Tournament, Gantt will take a few days off and then travel to Iowa City, Iowa for the United States Olympic Team trials set for April 8-10.
Gantt will compete in the freestyle division with the hope of qualifying as a member of the United States team in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 5-21.
“I plan to do wrestle freestyle for awhile after college,’’ Gantt said. “The long range goal is to coach and to eventually be a head wrestling coach at the college level. But that’s still a little way off. I want to compete for as long as I can.”