HEYWORTH — In a season with six state champions, three of whom went unbeaten, the search for the Pantagraph Area Wrestler of the Year was like stepping into a Lamborghini dealership.
Every possible choice looked great.
Eliminating the state champions with losses — Bloomington sophomore Chad Bellis (44-11 at 106 pounds), Heyworth junior Levi Neuleib (40-1 at 113) and Clinton junior Micah Downs (30-3 at 183) — still left the showroom with Prairie Central sophomores Brandon Hoselton (51-0 at 195) and Logan Deacetis (53-0 at 160) and Heyworth junior Gabe Spencer (53-0 at 120).
With nothing to nitpick in their perfect records, the unbeatens’ state tournament opponents were taken into consideration.
In that regard, Spencer’s resume inched ahead because his 5-4 Class 1A title match victory came against Peotone’s Paul Keane (33-2), the 2018 state champion at 113 and the 2017 runner-up at 106. Plus, Spencer owned an earlier win against Class 2A 126-pound state third-placer Tristan Daugherty of Peoria Notre Dame.
Spencer’s career has involved overcoming obstacles, the biggest of which was a wobbly belief in himself after going 39-2 as the state runner-up at 113 as a freshman before slumping to 34-6 as merely a state qualifier at 120 as a sophomore.
“I think the biggest thing for him was his growth in his mentality,” said Coach Josh Collins. “He struggled a little bit with confidence and knowing how good he was last year. He grew as a person, as a wrestler this year with his confidence and believing in himself.”
Everyone involved in Heyworth’s history making season, in which the 27-9 Hornets placed fourth in the dual team state tournament, believes Spencer benefited from training with 138-pound state runner-up Andrew Sims (57-2), Neuleib and 126-pounder Wyatt Cotton (27-20).
“Every time they step into the practice room, it’s like a state tournament,” Collins says. “None of those guys want to get scored on. It’s pretty exciting as a coach to just be able to be there and watch them practice every day.”
It was Cotton who convinced Spencer to give wrestling a try in seventh grade.
“I was getting beat a lot in the beginning of the year,” Spencer remembers. “Around regional and sectional time, I started beating kids.”
Spencer came within one victory of qualifying for the state tournament as a seventh grader. A year later, he took third in the state.
This season, Spencer set a school record for consecutive victories and scored 111 takedowns, pushing his career total to a school record 392. He also notched 24 pins.
In his state final and semifinal, Spencer gave up the all-important first takedown, but rallied. In the final, the deciding point came with 1:13 left when Keane was called for stalling.
“It’s an opinion call, for the most part,” Collins admits. “I would rather them call stalling consistently where if you are going backwards, you are stalling. I like seeing kids wrestling. I like seeing the action.”
Spencer stays active year-round polishing his technique at various clubs, camps and tournaments. The next national tournament he is targeting is July 12-19 in Fargo, N.D.
“He always wants to be on a wrestling mat,” said Collins, who believes Spencer’s confidence comes from his training.
“At the end of the season, I didn’t want it to end,” Spencer admits. “I was enjoying wrestling so much. I’m pretty bored without it.”
Collins hopes Spencer considers wrestling in college where the lowest weight class is 125. Becoming a Marine also appeals to Spencer, who says his state title hasn’t changed how he views himself.
“I feel about the same,” he said. “It’s just that I’m a state champion. I always felt like I could win a state championship if I just trained hard enough.
“Wrestling doesn’t really define me. It’s my faith in God and how I treat other people. It’s just a good feeling to be state champion and know there are bigger things out there than just wrestling.”
Indeed, there are bigger things, things that can't even be found in a showroom full of sports cars, things like a self belief strong enough to make a dream real.