Ryan Blees looked down a demanding, painful, stressful road as he approached last summer's USA Wrestling Junior Nationals. And he didn't know the half of it.
Although the task proved to be even more daunting than he'd imagined, he prevailed, capturing the 152-pound freestyle championship at the Fargodome. Making Blees' triumph even more impressive was his age. His senior year at Bismarck lay ahead.
That feat earned Blees the non-school athlete of the year award presented annually by the North Dakota Associated Press Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. In separate voting, University of Nebraska gymnast Emily Wong won the NDAPSSA's Dakota Award for the second time.
Bismarck’s Ryan Blees (right) captured the 152-pound freestyle championship last summer by rallying from a 9-2 deficit in the title match.
"I had a lot of hopes and dreams and a determination to do something ... but I wouldn't have expected it to happen like it did," Blees said in retrospect. "I had so many tough matches leading up to the finals.
"The way it played out was much more intense and meaningful than I would have ever thought it could be prior to the tournament. The grind made all the pain and all the work that much more worthwhile."
Blees' 10-match road to the championship was littered with obstacles.
"I think every match I was down at the beginning," he said.
The championship match against Minnesotan Jake Short severely tested his mental toughness. Down 9-2 in the early going, he rallied to win 12-9.
"That required lots of heart. That was a win-win for me," Blees said.
Blees, who finished with a high school career record of 250-25 and four state championships, was simply not accustomed to seven-point deficits.
"It was definitely unfamiliar, but something was driving me," he said. "... My coaches said 'Keep on him. Keep pounding on him and he's going to get tired.' You've got to wrestle the full six minutes, possibly more. I had that drilled into me by my coaches."
Blees' triumph at the Fargodome paid immediate dividends. It put him squarely in the sights of the nation's premier collegiate wrestling programs.
Following a whirlwind recruiting process, he went with Oklahoma State during the early signing period. He's currently at OSU attending summer school and preparing for the wrestling season.
"It's not a particularly fun summer, but it's for my improvement. I don't want to be overwhelmed that first week in the fall," he said. "... Wrestling is a job now, but a fun one."
Part of his training regimen is aimed at defending his junior national title in July at the Fargodome.
"Junior nationals are coming up and I'll be wrestling in that, but I'm training through that almost and focusing on the goal of an NCAA championship down the road," he said.
Other finalists for the non-school athlete award were Ty Breuer of Mandan, rodeo, and Jordan Scherer, West Fargo wrestling.