By Gary Kalahar (Photo by Ryan Kerwin, JTV Sports)
Ethan Weatherspoon is asked whether he could realistically break his brother Lelund’s Napoleon High School record for career victories in wrestling.
He hesitates, says he isn’t sure, asking how many matches Lelund won.
So much for the pressure of following in big brother’s footsteps.
The fact that Weatherspoon is unaware of his brother’s school record is perhaps a good indication that he is not concerned about – or at least has come to terms with – living up to the high standards set on the wrestling mat by two of his brothers.
“I got over the pressure part,” said Weatherspoon, a junior who acknowledges he might have felt the burden more in previous years. “You have to get past the pressure.”
Still, there is one achievement of brothers Lelund and Jason that Ethan would certainly like to match. He has that chance this weekend when he travels to Ford Field in Detroit for the state final meet. Weatherspoon will seek a Division 3 state title at 189 pounds, trying to become the third of the Weatherspoon siblings to be an MHSAA state champion.
Weatherspoon says his brothers have been good role models for him, and the fact that Jason was always heavier than him and Lelund lighter makes it difficult to compare them. Napoleon coach Carl Bunker said his upbringing has helped keep the comparisons from weighing him down.
“He’s got a great family,” Bunker said. “I don’t think they put pressure on him. I think there’s a self-drive there where he puts pressure on himself. But they’re a great athletic family. They’re going to love him win, lose or draw. He says he wants to win, and they’re going to help guide him that way. I don’t see it as pressure. I view it as a good, supportive family.”
It’s a family of 13 kids for Vincent and Dolleta, with Ethan the 11th. He grew up watching wrestling and was there when Jason took the 189-pound state title in 2007 and when Lelund captured state championships in 2011 at 152 pounds and again in 2012 at 160. He pictured himself standing atop the podium someday.
“You know how you always are about your big brother,” he said. “You always want to be better.”
When Ethan started wrestling in second grade and took an immediate liking to it, it was brother Greg, two years older than him, who provided the competition on the mat in the basement. But lest anyone think that wrestling is a requirement in the Weatherspoon household, Greg ended up playing basketball in high school.
After winning his back-to-back state championships, Lelund went on to wrestle at Iowa State University, where he was a two-time Big 12 Conference champion and competed in the NCAA Championships three times. His record at Napoleon was 195-15, a victory total that is not out of the question for Ethan if he has a senior season like this one.
He went 38-11 as a freshman and placed seventh in the Div. 3 state meet at 160 pounds. Last year he compiled a 48-7 record wrestling at 171. With Napoleon in Div. 4, he placed eighth in the state after, in his words, “messing up” his quarterfinal match. He lost that one 3-2 to Bad Axe’s Dylan Smith, who went on to win the championship.
“I definitely could have placed higher – should have placed higher,” Weatherspoon said. “It was more in my head than anything. It was a downfall mentally.”
The defeat spurred him to take a look at his physical fitness as well.
“I feel I’ve trained harder this year,” he said. “I thought I was training hard before, but …. I’ve pushed myself more. After last year, I felt like I had to go the extra mile, train harder.”
Bunker said that Weatherspoon’s improvement has been largely the result of wrestling with confidence and aggression.
“Wrestling is really practice until you get to tournament time,” Bunker said. “If you are aggressive and working on something and you mess it up and lose a match in week two, it’s not going to kill you. You have to get them out of that conservative mode where they’re afraid to make a mistake.
“There hasn’t been anybody I’ve coached who’s been too aggressive. Ethan’s not as conservative as he was as a freshman. He’s still not as aggressive as I’d like him to be. But there’s a balance there where they have to find what works with their style. It’s a never-ending process. You’re always learning.”
Weatherspoon went into his junior year with two goals.
“First (in the state) and undefeated,” he said. “Nothing short of that will be good enough.”
So far, so good. Weatherspoon heads to the finals unbeaten in 49 matches, a large majority of them by pin and with very few serious tests. His workouts in the nearly two-week span between the regional and state final meet have included some time swimming to improve his conditioning.
“I’m a lot more confident this year than I have been the last couple years,” he said about the state meet. “I feel like if I come in confident, not cocky, but more confident than usual, and wrestle relaxed more than tensed up and cautious, just wrestle my match, I’ll do well.”
Bunker agreed that the mental approach is crucial on the last weekend of the season, when there are 16 wrestlers in the bracket and it takes four straight victories to emerge as the champion.
“You generally are going to perform your best when you’re relaxed,” Bunker said. “But it’s one of the hardest things to do, to put yourself in the state tournament, the ultimate goal of your sport, and get yourself to relax. It’s a tough mental trick. Everybody’s good, and given certain situations, anybody is capable of beating anybody in their bracket. You just have to go out and put together two good days in a row.”
There is one other unbeaten wrestler in his weight class. Jamane Smith of Coloma is on the other side of the bracket, as is Dundee’s Kyle Motylinski, who gave Weatherspoon one of his best matches of the season in a 4-1 decision.
The state meet is seeing two changes this season, moving from The Palace of Auburn Hills and being condensed from three days to two.
“Wherever you put it, it’s the state championship,” Weatherspoon said. “I think it’s pretty cool that it’s going to be at Ford Field.”
Weatherspoon is also on Napoleon’s football and track teams. He was a state meet qualifier in the long jump last spring and was honorable mention all-state as a receiver in football this season.
“I love winning in wrestling,” he said. “It’s very rewarding. The training that you go through, you get out of it what you put into it.”