Zach Brown is ready to write his final chapter for Crookston
Zach Brown is smiling.
His coach, Wes Hanson, is wearing a mask, but it's clear he isn't smiling underneath it. He's pacing the edge of the mat with his arms out in a state of confusion.
For the second time in about 30 seconds, Brown had made a move on Frazee's Christian Carlson that Hanson seemed to think should have resulted in points. Instead, nothing.
But while an upset Hanson tries to get clarification from the two officials, Brown looks like he's moved on a long time ago. He's smiling as he shuffles around the mat; his grin betraying an air of confidence. He's still leading Carlson 1-0 and he appears to know he's too good to lose too much sleep over an unfavorable call or two.
Carlson's a formidable opponent; one of the only wrestlers in Section 8A that can even compete with Brown. They met in last year's section final at 120 pounds and Carlson made Brown work for a 7-4 decision.
This time, Carlson's making him work even harder. Brown starts the third period in the top position, and Carlson engineers a reversal one minute in. Brown needs to score quickly to avoid just his third loss of his senior season.
Brown, normally a takedown machine, can't find a way to take down Carlson. So he becomes an escape artist instead. Twice in 15 seconds he spins away from Carlson's hold, the two one-point escapes ultimately giving him the winning margin.
The victory at 126 pounds proved instrumental in Crookston's upset of the top-seeded Hornets in the Section 8A team semifinals last Thursday. For Brown, it was nothing new.
"He's a guy that likes to show up when the lights are on," Hanson said.
Under those bright lights, Brown helped lead the Pirates to their first section championship since 1988, winning all four of his matches during the team postseason, which ended with a loss to Royalton-Upsala last Saturday. Not only was Brown a force on the mat, but he was one of Crookston's most vocal leaders. He rarely even sat during other Pirates' matches, constantly yelling encouragement and cheering for his teammates.
Brown helped Crookston achieve its primary team goal. With the team season over, he's on the doorstep of a personal goal as well.
The Section 8A Individual Tournament begins Tuesday afternoon in Crookston. There, where he'll be wrestling at 120 pounds, he'll begin his quest for a barely-precedented fourth straight section championship. After that, it's off to the state tournament, where the aspirations are even higher and the precedents are even fewer.
For the season, Brown, ranked No. 6 in Class A, is 31-2 with 14 pins. His matches are rarely even close. Out of his wins, just four been decided by three points or less. He hasn't lost in his last 17 matches, dating back to Feb. 6.
As Brown prepares to write his final chapter of high school wrestling, he's as dominant as ever.
Wrestling came naturally to Zach Brown.
When he was young, Brown jumped from sport to sport, but in kindergarten he decided to try wrestling. The sport's been in his family for years: his father wrestled, as did all of his uncles and great-uncles.
So when Brown immediately showed talent, it didn't come as much of a surprise. He qualified for youth state tournaments, where he competed against the best in his age group and found out he was on their level.
"That's what really showed me how good I could be," he said.
Once that realization hit, Brown started working harder and harder, trying to take full advantage of his gifts. He joined the Crookston wrestling team as a seventh-grader and rose to varsity the next year. Hanson, who became the Pirates' head coach the same year Brown joined the team, saw a "wide-eyed kid trying to take it all in" at first, but a "coachable kid" and "natural technician" as well.
Ask Hanson when he realized he had a future star on his hands, and his mind goes right away to one match during the individual section tournament in Brown's eighth-grade season. Brown was competing at 106 pounds, undersized but still managing a solid 26-15 record. In the consolation semifinals against Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton's Blake Bakken, Brown came from behind late to win, 2-1.
"That's something that has resonated with me," Hanson said. "... It was kind of like, okay, he's a guy that's a gamer and wants to compete."
A bigger, stronger Brown came back as a freshman and went 37-6, winning the Section 8A title at 106 pounds and qualifying for state for the first time. It was a formative moment in his career; the moment where he discovered he had made it.
Brown knew the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul was a big venue. He didn't realize just how big until he walked out of the tunnel and onto the main floor, looked around and saw all of the fans. Then there was the tournament's customary pomp and circumstance, such as the photos being taken that interrupted Brown's pre-match routine.
"Next thing, boom, you're up to wrestle," Hanson said.
Brown remembers his first match at state that year — only he doesn't. He had so much adrenaline, he says, he more or less blacked out the entire first period. But he still made a statement that day.
After losing his first match, Brown drew Kelvin Andrade-Ponce of Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City in the wrestlebacks. Andrade-Ponce led 4-2 with 10 seconds remaining, when Brown made his move. He rolled Andrade-Ponce on his back, exposing his shoulders to the mat, and scored the winning points via near fall with one second left.
It remains the most memorable match of Brown's career.
Brown ultimately finished ninth, but felt his nerves were holding him back from a higher finish. That wasn't the case his sophomore season. Once again, Brown rolled to a section title, this time at 113 pounds. With his adrenaline at a much more manageable level, he finished fourth at state, and ended the year with a 39-3 record.
Last season, Brown won a third straight section championship, competing at 120 pounds. Despite a sixth-place finish at state, he feels as though he underperformed somewhat, as he thought he could have capitalized on a few more opportunities. But he was still miles away from the callow freshman he was in 2018.
In addition to Brown's three trips to St. Paul, he was selected to Team Minnesota at the Junior National Duals in the summer of 2018 and 2019 (the 2020 duals were cancelled due to COVID-19).
Also on Team Minnesota were wrestlers from Class AAA, state veterans, three and four-time state champions. Just hanging out around them and getting to know up-close how they trained, prepared and competed was critical for Brown, as was competing against athletes from all around the United States.
"I've wrestled good kids," Brown said. "But wrestling kids from other states has definitely pushed me a lot harder and really shown what I need to improve on."
Brown's always excelled from the neutral position, according to himself and Hanson. His confidence, too, is highest when he's on his feet.
"I feel like I can take anybody in the state down," Brown said. "I feel like I can stop anyone from taking me down."
Paired with his mental toughness and inherent feel for wrestling, it's become an almost unbeatable combination.
"He's quick and he feels pressure well," Hanson said. "Using that to his advantage can be huge to make some of those techniques work. Feeling the weight, and an innate ability to understand when the opportunity presents itself to strike has really worked well for him."
Earlier in his career, Brown's weakness was in the top position, where he struggled to hold opponents down and maintain control on ride outs. He's made substantial improvements in that area, though, according to Hanson.
At this point in his career, he's about as close to a complete wrestler as possible.
He has one more chance to put it all on display.
In Tuesday's Section 8A tournament, the top four wrestlers in each weight class will advance to the state preliminaries in Cass Lake on Saturday. From there, two wrestlers in each of the four preliminary sites will qualify for the state tournament in St. Michael on March 27.
No matter what happens over the next two weeks, Brown will likely bring his wrestling career to an end afterwards. "That breaks my heart," said Hanson, who wrestled at St. Cloud State and has tried to encourage Brown to wrestle collegiately as well.
Hanson seems to understand Brown's decision, though. Brown's had a couple colleges show interest in him, but he wants to devote himself more to his studies (he plans to go into exercise science, and maybe become a physical therapist one day). In addition, well over a decade of wrestling has done a number on his body, his knees in particular.
But he's got one more thing he wants to do before retiring his shoes and singlet for good.
"My only goal this year is to win state," he said. ".... Ever since I was little, each year I dream of it more and more."
It's been 31 years since a Crookston wrestler topped the podium as an individual at state. Lenny Meine, a three-time state qualifier, did so in 1989 and 1990. Paul Kuznik, who won in 1985 and 1986, is the Pirates' only other former state champion.
Brown is already in rarefied air. With 168 career wins, he's fourth all-time on the school's leaderboard. Just eight other Pirates — Javier Portillo (five), Matt Lessard (four), Kuznik (four), Blake Bergeron, Brody Davidson, Cody Weiland, Josh Edlund and Meine — have at least three state appearances. Portillo (four), Kuznik, Meine and Weiland are the only ones with at least three section titles to their name. A third podium finish at state would put Brown alongside only Kuznik and Meine.
If Brown were to place first at state this year, he'd accomplish a feat no other Crookston wrestler has pulled off: four straight section titles and a state championship to cap it off.
Hanson already has trouble keeping track of many of Brown's achievements. But it's hard to forget a state title.
"Being a two-time state place winner already cements himself as one of the best wrestlers in Crookston history," Hanson said. "But there's a couple guys that have a few state titles to their name. That's ultimately what we gotta be looking for."
The last two years, Brown's been two wins away. Pushing through from the semifinals, according to Hanson, will come down to everything that got him there in the first place. Being cool, calm and collected stepping onto the mat. Getting that first takedown. Wrestling a complete match. He's done it all before, and it's all led up to this.
Wrestling has shaped Zach Brown's life, no matter if he continues with it or not. It's given him lifelong friendships. It's instilled in him confidence, discipline and perseverance. Those traits, in turn, have allowed Brown to write himself into the Crookston record books.
The only thing that's left for him to write is the ending.
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