The fist pump from Dakota Nixon was ever-so-subtle. But its motion was big enough to speak volumes.
It wasn't just an ordinary win the Hughesville sophomore recorded over Jersey Shore's Zak Herman last Tuesday. It was a mile-marker in the marathon of his wrestling season, a measuring stick to lay substance to his already 20-win record.
The win was a display of everything about Nixon that is going to make him a threat for the next six weeks in the postseason. He was quick and athletic on his feet. He was a bull on top, scrambling out of several escape attempts and utilizing his brute strength to hold down Herman on a tilt for the three winning back points.
And more importantly than anything else which happened during the course of six minutes, Nixon not only got out from the bottom, but he scored a reversal. It's where he's worked most to improve, and it was invaluable to succeed in a bout he saw as important to himself and his development.
It was exactly what Hughesville head coach Steve Budman was hoping to see before the match with Jersey Shore began. It was the one match he wanted to make sure happened when he was going through the potential matchups beforehand.
Nixon and Herman didn't disappoint. Herman, a Top Hat Tournament runner-up back in December, was maybe the biggest test of Nixon's season since the Top Hat tournament. So as much as Budman was looking forward to the matchup, Nixon may have been looking forward to it more.
"Coming into this I hadn't really beaten really good wrestlers," Nixon said. "I think my biggest win was probably Gavin Caprio from Central Mountain. Other than that, I usually tech fall or something. So getting that win was big."
Nixon has only spent about a month wrestling down at 145 pounds for Hughesville, but it's made all the difference for the sophomore. He started the season at 160 pounds, which he said was his football weight. Despite not being as strong as his opponents, Nixon took third at the Top Hat, where his only loss came on a medical default to Penfield's George Pancio over his broken nose in the quarterfinals.
Nixon returned the next day to win four consecutive consolation bouts the first three of which were by a total of five points before besting Pancio for third place, 9-3. But those close scores concerned Nixon. He wasn't nearly as big as the other 160-pounders, especially since he weighed in at 156. He knew he wasn't going to make the easy cut to 152 pounds because that's where the Spartans' returning state runner-up Kyle Barnes was.
So immediately after the Top Hat, Nixon started his descent to 145 pounds. He's 9-1 since his drop. His only loss came last week in overtime to Montoursville freshman Garrett Hoffman, who is building quite the resume of his own this year.
"I always tell my wrestlers, and they laugh, that food is bad for your conditioning," Budman said. "When you're fat, you're slow. That's what my college coach always told me. He's very fit at 145. I definitely see his speed's picked up, too."
Seven of Nixon's 11 wins at 160 pounds were wins by decisions. He knew he should be doing more damage for the team score than just picking up decision victories.
Seven of his 10 wins at 145 pounds have gone for bonus points. And as a byproduct, his move to 145 has allowed the Spartans a little bit of flexibility in their lineup to where they can move Nixon, Barnes, Matt Herr and Robert White around to get their best matchups to earn bonus points.
"I feel a lot different now. I'm faster and not as sluggish on my feet. I have better shots," Nixon said. "One-sixty was basically my football weight. I thought I could stay there, but it just wasn't working. If I was cutting down from 170 they probably would have been bigger wins, but I was getting outsized."
Nixon has been good enough this year to earn himself a spot on the honorable mention list of the state rankings by papowerwrestling.com. Part of that has to do with his improved ability in the bottom position.
The sophomore is going to have to be on top of his game in all three facets of wrestling if he hopes to advance out of a 145-pound bracket at the sectional tournament that is also going to include three-time state placewinner Colt Cotten of Benton and District 4 sixth-place finisher Aaron Johnson of Central Columbia. The field to get to the regional tournament is only going to get tougher when state placewinner Seth Lansberry of Line Mountain, regional fourth-place finisher Billy Barnes of Williamson, Milton district sixth-place finisher Taylor Porter and Montoursville's Hoffman are added.
That's why Nixon's reversal on Herman was so important to see. He's always been able to get to his feet, but hasn't always been able to take that next step and get free. He's so confident on his feet that when he gets there he knows he can get takedowns, but he also knows he has to get to neutral first.
"The coaches have changed me to sitbacks and turn-ins and stuff like that," Nixon said. "It's just all coming together, I guess."
"Dakota is absolutely great on his feet, but he is absolutely not going to be able to take everyone down in the state. It's not going to happen," Budman said. "He has to get better on bottom. He has spent a lot of time figuring out what he is going to do on bottom. He's good on his feet, he's getting good on bottom, and you can see what he did on top."
There was reason for Nixon to be excited after the win over Herman last week. He's become a legitimate threat in District 4, and that win may have announced as much.
That fist pump after the win? That was well earned.
BRADY BUNCH-OF WINS
Brady Bryington's season record isn't anything that's going to make you snap your head and take notice. In fact, when it comes time for sectionals in three weeks, you may even gloss over his name without hesitation. But the Canton freshman has come up with enough big wins this year to make you understand that he's a named you're going to need to keep an eye on in the future.
The latest in his line of big wins came Thursday in a must-win match against Williamson in his home gymnasium. It was a win so monumental that Williamson head coach Mark Everett said he thought Canton was going to win the dual because of it.
Bryington's fall over Williamson's Dakota Bolt was a matter of taking advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself. It was a crucial win, one that made half of Canton's gymnasium explode in excitement while worry began to hover over the Williamson side. Canton didn't complement Bryington's win with a dual-meet victory, though, losing 40-33 and having its hopes at a spot in the District 4 Duals dashed. But Bryington's win gave the Warriors a shot.
"I told him just stay in good position, believe in yourself," Canton first-year head coach Lyle Wesneski said. "You'll get a shot, so make it count when you do."
That shot was when Bolt went looking for a big-point throw. Bryington read it and caught Bolt on his back for the fall. It helped Canton built a 26-6 lead before turning into the teeth of Williamson's potent lightweights. And it was the second time this year Bryington picked up a fall when Canton absolutely needed it.
The freshman rallied from a five-point deficit against Troy's Briar Jenkins. He first rallied to take the lead, and then was able to get the fall in the third period to lead the Warriors over a then 12-2 Troy team, 41-30.
"We throw him to the wolves in practice. We told him you're going to start and you're going to get frustrated. But as the year goes on you're going to feel better," Wesneski said. "Now he's getting some wins under his belt and he's getting some confidence. As a ninth-grader at heavyweight, that's huge having some confidence. He's won some huge matches for us, and (against Williamson) was one of them."
IT AIN'T NO SURPRISE
Jersey Shore head coach Shawn Weaver was very matter-of-fact with his answer. He understands the reasons why people may think the Bulldogs' start to the season was a surprise, but the bottom line was he wasn't surprised.
The Bulldogs were boosted by the returns of Zak Herman and Nate Caputo to the team this year, which help offset the losses of wrestlers like Jake Caputo, McKenzie Kershner, Ryan Harer, Elliot Packer and Dylan Shields.
"Some young guys like (Nate) Lose, (Hayden) Swartwood and (Allen) Saar have contributed tremendously for us. I can't say I'm surprised, it's just really nice to see them having success because they put in a lot of work," Weaver said. "As as coach I couldn't ask for anything more from our young guys. It's been a really fun year."
This really fun year for the Bulldogs could end up resulting in their second consecutive trip to Hershey for the PIAA Duals tournament. Jersey Shore qualified a year ago, advancing to Hershey for the first time where it went 0-2.
The 9-0 start to this season, which included a one-point win over Shikellamy, has Jersey Shore as the favorite heading into the District 4 Class AAA final on Saturday against that same Shikellamy team it beat in December. Only now, the Bulldogs are in the midst of a slide that has seen them lose four of its last five matches, which is a point of concern for Weaver.
"It's never a good thing, but it all depends on how you look at it and how you take it and what you make it do for you," Weaver said. "It can put you in a bad spot or it can make you realize you have work to do to get better. I'm sure they'll work hard to fix it and make it right by district duals."
Mitch Rupert covers high school wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.