BROOKINGS, S.D. — Zach Carlson’s goal was to become an All-American wrestler.
And with the NCAA Division I wrestling championships set to take place at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, there was no better place for Carlson to wrap up his career at South Dakota State.
“That was huge, having that be in my home state,” Carlson said from his family’s home in Murdock this week. “I had a bunch of fans that were going to make it. There was no better way to go out than in Minneapolis.”
Then on March 12, four days after Carlson qualified for his first NCAA tournament with a second-place showing at the Big 12 Championship, the NCAA canceled the national championship due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Last weekend was supposed to be a culmination of Carlson’s collegiate career. The former Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg standout was gunning for a top-eight finish to earn All-American honors. Instead, he and the other 330 wrestlers who qualified had to stay home.
“It’s obviously really hard; I don’t know what words I can describe it with,” Carlson said about the tournament cancellation. “I had this goal for five years and it gets taken away and it’s out of my control. It’s really hard.”
“It’s devastating for these student-athletes and my heart pours out for them,” said SDSU head coach Damion Hahn. “The time and effort put into this, (the national tournament) is supposed to be a culmination of a career for a guy like Zach Carlson.
“When you take a step back, and it may take a while for these kids to really grasp and understand, this is for the betterment of humanity. This is something that’s so much bigger than sports, bigger than anything.”
The ending was far from ideal, but the story of Carlson’s collegiate career will not be defined by its conclusion. Instead, his story is one of perseverance.
Finding his spot
Starting his Jackrabbit career as a redshirt freshman, Carlson struggled to find his footing. He was dealing with injuries and had knee surgery. And he couldn’t find the right spot in the lineup as he competed anywhere from 165 to 197 pounds after wrapping up his high school career at 170.
When Hahn — a two-time national champion for the University of Minnesota at 197 in 2003 and ‘04 — became SDSU’s new head coach in Carlson’s junior year, Carlson found much-needed stability.
“Going through that first summer with him, we were in a situation where I asked him what weight you want to go do,” said Hahn, who came to SDSU after serving as assistant coach at Cornell. “We were thinking 174 but he ended up at 184, and I think that gave him the ability to focus on wrestling. He could lift heavy and focus on getting better.”
Carlson added: “That was big. All year, I didn’t have to worry about weight at all, just improving my skills and technique.”
With Carlson’s “farm boy” strength, as Hahn put it, and an added emphasis on working from the top and getting riding points, Carlson’s first year as a starter was a success. He was 22-9, the most wins on the team..
“He was a match or two away from the national tournament. It was a good year but it didn’t finish the way he wanted,” Hahn said. “From that moment on, he kicked into a new gear. He was not going to be denied.”
Last chance to impress
The jump Carlson made for his senior year was like seeing a completely different wrestler.
“The summer came and with the training, he was living right and doing what he could to better himself,” Hahn said. “He took more of a leadership role with the team. He led by example and started to open up as a verbal leader. … He came out of the gates like a new man, a guy on a mission.”
Carlson opened this winter by winning the 184 bracket at the Bison Open in Fargo, North Dakota, followed by a second-place showing at the Daktronics Open in Brookings.
“Starting the season, my body was feeling good and I was scoring a lot of points,” said Carlson, who had a 201-34 record at KMS. “I was beating ranked guys in the first two tournaments. I knew I was one of the better wrestlers in the nation.”
In dual meets, the Jackrabbits got a substantial boost from Carlson. He was 15-3 in duals, scoring bonus points in 10 of his wins (one fall, five major decisions, four tech falls) while giving up bonus points in just one dual loss. SDSU was 12-6 in duals.
“Dual meets are fun because you got the whole team and it’s a team effort,” Carlson said. “My job was to score points and get bonus points.”
Closing the regular season on an 8-1 run, Carlson had plenty of momentum going into the Big 12 Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 7-8. Going in as the third seed, Carlson reached the 184 championship after beating Oklahoma’s Darrien Roberts (8-2 decision) and Wyoming’s Tate Samuelson (3-2 decision).
Facing top-seeded Taylor Lujan of Northern Iowa, Carlson ended up losing an 8-6 decision but kept the nation’s top 184-pounder on his toes.
“He wrestled Lujan earlier in the year and almost got majored,” Hahn said. “Then in the Big 12, he’s down two with a couple seconds left. … The development was there in an upward trajectory. It would have only been better.”
Carlson chimed in, “That was a huge confidence builder, wrestling that close of a match and scoring in every position. I knew going into nationals that I could beat the best of the best.”
Carlson finished his senior year with a 25-6 record and was the 12th seed in the national championship, scheduled to face Rutgers’ Billy Janzer in the opening round. Then, the pandemic forced the NCAA to shut down all remaining winter championships.
“This NCAA tournament is not defining him,” Hahn said “The things leading up to it, for Zach, defines the man he becomes.”
Hahn later added, “I wish I had four more years with him.”
Majoring in agricultural science, Carlson is nearly wrapped up with school. On Tuesday, SDSU moved classes online for the rest of the spring semester due to the Coronavirus. Zach’s wife, Madison, is a kindergarten teacher in the Sioux Valley school district in Volga, South Dakota.
Whatever the future holds for Zach’s life is up in the air. He’ll look back at his college career fondly, even without the storybook ending.
“I wouldn’t have changed anything but the ending,” he said. “Overall, it was a really good experience.”