College Wrestling: Progress made for All-American Carlson

·9 min read

Dec. 22—BROOKINGS, S.D. — it's hard for Clay Carlson to fathom the leap he's made in the last calendar year.

Wrestling at 141 pounds for South Dakota State University, Carlson went from a 21-16 record in 2019-20. Last season, he finished eighth at 141 in the NCAA Division I championships and was 20-9 overall while All-American honors.

Heading into 2022, Carlson is still exceeding his own high expectations.

"I can see my progress in such a short amount of time, where I think about where I was last January where the season was all messed up due to COVID," Carlson said. "Where I'm at right now compared to 365 days ago, it's super cool to see progress."

A junior for the Jackrabbits, the 2018 Willmar High School graduate and former state champion, is 13-0 and ranked sixth nationally at 141, according to Intermat, an internet entity that does collegiate rankings.

"The fruits of my labor are finally paying off," Carlson said.

SDSU head coach Damion Hahn had a conversation with Carlson about how the future was going to go.

"I said to him, 'Clay, there's one of two things that can happen: 1. You're satisfied and whatever happens next happens,'" Hahn said. "But I said, 'Clay, I don't think that's you. You're happy, but you're not satisfied with eighth place. And you're going to use that as fuel to your fire.'"

And if the start of the '21-'22 season is any indication, Carlson looks to be on his way to being one of the top wrestlers in the country.

"He's really come into his own and believes and trusts in his abilities and training and what he can do," Hahn said.

Working on his craft

On the mat, Carlson wants to be the aggressor. The way he sees it, "There's only seven minutes total to spend on the wrestling mat. Any time I'm standing there, looking at the guy, I'm wasting time. The more wrestling time I can create in seven minutes, the better I can compete."

So he got to work on his hand-fighting and footwork. And in the wrestling room, the Jackrabbits found a perfect mentor for Carlson in assistant coach Brady Berge. A four-time Minnesota state champion from Kasson-Mantorville, Berge wrestled collegiately at Penn State for four years, putting together a 31-9 career record that was cut short due to injury.

"He's helped me a lot with getting better on top and changing a little bit on how I hand-fight so I can get to my offense a little bit more," Carlson said. "It's been good; the more points I score, the easier it is to win a match."

Hahn added, "Clay took to (Berge) right away. They're around the same size and Clay and Brady have worked a lot together in the off-season, through the preseason and into the first half of the year. ... A kid like Clay is a sponge. He takes it all in and having a coach like Brady on staff, it's been beneficial."

Proving ground

Through his success, Carlson has still maintained a chip on his shoulder. And twice in the early portion of the season, he's gotten to prove himself on significant stages.

The first came on Nov. 8 in a dual meet against the University of Minnesota where he wrestled at Maturi Pavilion for the first time. The Gophers are rooted deep in his family. Clay's dad, Carl, and his uncle, Chad, both wrestled at Minnesota. Clay's cousin, Cael, is a redshirt sophomore for the Gophers at 165.

"I was going there with a purpose and I wanted to wrestle really well in front of the Minnesota crowd," Clay said. "I didn't get recruited very hard by Minnesota and I wanted to show them what you missed out on just because I always wanted to be a Gopher growing up.

"I had a really good match."

In front of family and friends, with many wearing Minnesota maroon and gold, Clay ended up beating Jake Bergeland in a 12-3 major decision.

"I had a cheering section and what's funny is they'd show up wearing Minnesota gear," Clay said, "then they're cheering me, a Jackrabbit, when he wins against a Minnesota guy. That was kind of a cool experience."

Cashing in at Vegas

A week later, Clay had his breakout moment at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.

Despite being the No. 1 seed at 141 pounds, Clay was hearing throughout the week that he'd be an underdog. Admittingly, that got under his skin.

"Going into that, I got the one seed but it didn't really feel like I got the one seed," Clay said. "When you saw all the news articles about the 141-pound weight class, it was all talk about (Northern Colorado's) Andrew Alirez and (Nebraska's) Chad Red and how those are the two guys to watch. It was kind of insulting almost, the fact that they would say, yeah, Carlson should be the one seed but we don't expect him to win. I feel as though a lot of the wrestling media doesn't think that I deserved to be an All-American last year."

Clay opened the tournament with a pin on Kent State's Louis Newell in 4:54. Then for the third time this season, Clay beat Bergeland in a 6-3 decision. He wrapped up a spot in the finals with a 6-1 decision over Purdue's Parker Filius, who had upset Red in the quarterfinals.

"Going into the finals, I was really confident in myself," Clay said. "That's the biggest thing in wrestling: you have to truly believe that you're the best guy stepping on the mat."

Awaiting him in the finals was Alirez, a Big 12 Conference rival and the No. 8-ranked 141-pounder in the country. Alirez held the edge with a 6-3 lead through two periods.

Starting in the down position in the third, Clay got a quick escape. From there, he could tell there was an opening to take the match over.

"Everything was going against me going into that third period," Clay said. "But I could tell he was getting really tired. And it goes back to that confidence thing where I know I can take this guy down.

"I just started moving my hands and my feet. Next thing you know, I take him down and cut him on the edge of the mat. I took him down again and that time, he kind of just quit and I put him to his back and pinned him."

Clay locked up the 141 crown with a fall at 6:55.

"He made a statement," Hahn said. "He was down in the match and never took his foot off the gas. He never deviated from his plan. He ends up with a takedown and a pin on Alirez. It was a good moment for him to put some things in his mind that hey, there's no reason I can't contend for a national title."

Hahn said that Clay was sick the week of the Cliff Keen Invitational and was unsure if he was going to compete. But Clay was sure he was going to be on the mat.

"The thing about Clay is he has a high standard," Hahn said. "Whether people believe or not, or if he should win or shouldn't win, his high standard is he's going to go out and wrestle hard for seven minutes."

Another big year

Clay's tenacity has helped him stay among the unbeatens nationally. And, Clay admits, "It's a lot of fun to kind of break a guy like that" like his match against Alirez.

"It just goes to show that hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard," he added. "That's definitely how I felt after that match."

Heading into the new year, keeping that tenacity up for the next three months will be key for him to push for a national championship, according to his head coach.

"When he steps on the mat, the effort he puts into that match has to be consistent," Hahn said. "When he goes and competes, regardless of the score, he wants to leave a lasting impression in that person's mind. It doesn't matter if he won or lost, that guy is thinking, 'Oh my goddess, he is not going to stop.

"Consistency is going to be the biggest thing."

The Big 12 championship takes place on March 5-6 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then on March 17-19, the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships take place at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Beyond wrestling, Clay is set to get married in April to Olivia Corneil, a fellow 2018 Willmar High School grad. He'll graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in Animal Science/Pre-Veterinary Medicine. With two years of eligibility left due to COVID-19, Clay is debating whether to go to veterinary school or get a master's degree in another subject.

"Everybody keeps telling me that I'm crazy for thinking I could be a wrestler and a vet-school student," Clay said. "If I did a master's, it would be a lot less strenuous on my schedule. I dunno; it's something I'm going to have to decide. I'll talk to my fiancé about it and I have to get accepted into vet school first before that can be an option."

After a phenomenal 2021, anyone standing in Clay's way in 2022 is going to be in for a long night.

"When someone has to wrestle Clay, whether it's the first or second or fifth or 10th time, it's his pace and effort that worries people," Hahn said. "You know you're in for a dogfight and you better be ready to go into some deep waters. I don't think a lot of people are willing to do that and that's why he's doing what he's doing now."

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