PINEDALE – Eighth-grader Ryan Nutt and seventh-grader Wylee Willson are seasoned wrestlers with eight years under their belts. Taking that first step out onto the mat, staring down an opponent and waiting for the referee’s whistle to blow is routine for both athletes.
Willson clears his mind and tries not to think too hard about the match ahead.
“I just tell myself to have fun and give it my all,” he said.
Nutt focuses on a higher power.
“I just think to trust the Lord and that He’s going to be with me through the match,” he added.
The pressure was on at the Middle School State Tournament at Green River in December sponsored by the Wyoming Amateur Wrestling Association (WAWA) and USA Wrestling.
Nutt and Willson, representing the Pinedale Pummelers Wrestling Club, battled through the brackets in their respective weight divisions, hoping for a second- or first-place finish and a ticket to the Amateur Athletic Association Middle School National Duals in Iowa.
Nutt prepared to wrestle in the 95-pound division, but weighed in at 95.2 pounds before the qualifying tournament.
“Luckily, it was middle school rules, so I could go up to the 100 (pound bracket),” Nutt said.
Nutt swept the competition and found himself in the championship round against a buddy from Big Piney. Nutt dove right in and pinned his opponent to take the championship.
Willson fought his way to the championship round in his weight division. He typically takes each match as it comes and does not spend much time scoping out the competition before a meet.
“I know at least a little bit about my opponent,” he said. “If they’re really good, I know. Other than that, I just go out and wrestle.”
Willson took down his opponent and earned the championship in his weight division by fall.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “There was a lot of adrenaline.”
Nutt and Willson had just earned the chance to wrestle for Team Wyoming at the National Duals in Des Moines. Over the course of three days in early April, the young athletes from Pinedale took on opponents from states across the region.
Nutt and Willson crushed every opponent in their way to go undefeated at Nationals. Nutt said that he and Willson found encouragement from the “old people” up in the stands shouting “W-Y-O!”
Returning home with an impressive set of medals, the two wrestlers were not yet ready to call it a season. Two weeks following the National Duals, Nutt and Willson entered the three-day state tournament in Casper, hosted by WAWA and USA Wrestling.
The event featured brackets in freestyle, Greco-Roman and folkstyle wrestling. Nutt swept all three categories in his weight division to win the Triple Crown. Willson won the championship in his division in freestyle and folkstyle.
Putting in the work
Nutt and Willson joined the Pinedale Pummelers in elementary school, encouraged by their fathers, Michael Nutt and Aaron Willson, both coaches for the program.
“He’s always trying to get me to do better,” Nutt said of his father.
Willson hit the mats for the first time in kindergarten and never looked back.
“I just fell in love with the sport,” he said. “Competitiveness is part of it. It takes a lot of mental strength and physical strength. It’s a real challenge and a lot of fun at the same time.”
Nutt said that success in wrestling takes both talent and strength.
“If you have strength, you’re going to be good, and if you know the ways to move, you’re going to be good,” he said. “But beware of the person who has both the strength and knows the moves.”
Above all, making it to the top in wrestling takes an exceptional work ethic – the willingness to put in hours of practice each day.
Practice involves endurance training to prepare wrestlers for grueling two- or three-period matches, Nutt explained. He said his coaches constantly had the kids on their feet, running sprints back and forth, over and over again.
The young athletes agreed that doing other sports helps. Willson plays football and Nutt is involved in football, basketball and track.
Willson added that the wrestlers put in hours of conditioning and strength training with weights at SPEAR Strength and Performance owned by Logan Gehlhausen.
Aaron Willson said the young wrestlers set an example for other middle school athletes and students.
“I applaud both of them for stepping up, putting that extra work in, especially these last few weeks leading up to USA State,” he said. “They were working out and going to wrestling practice till 7, 7:30 at night. They were wiped. They never complained and they always showed up ready to work.”
Nutt and Willson thanked their coaches for support over the years, including Clay Cundall and Josh Fog at Pinedale Middle School and coaches Lance Gehlhausen, Bobby Hammer, Dennis Fornstrom, Mark Thonhoff, Travis Thomson and Clayton Foster at the Pinedale Pummelers.
Nutt also gave a shoutout to his father, teammates and Pinedale Middle School Principal Eric Makelky and Assistant Principal David Trash “for telling me to keep my grades up.”
“First off, I want to thank Ryan (Nutt) because he’s my training partner,” Willson said. “My parents – my dad, who is my head coach, and mainly to God who gave me the strength.”