For Ethan Harsted, attitude is everything.
The Ottawa High School standout athlete rediscovered an old effective one and shook off a disheartening new one to return to the level of the state of Illinois’ wrestling elite this winter and finish his mat career as the greatest the Pirates have ever known.
Harsted, who was a surprise second-place finisher in the IHSA Individual State Meet’s 2A 113-pound class as a sophomore, admitted that the pressure of the lofty expectations following that feat burned him out and kept him down a year ago, leading to an earlier-than-expected exit from the finals competition at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
But in his final season on the mat for OHS — and perhaps ever, if he decides to instead pursue his equally sought-after career in the pole vault — he regained the hunger, “eye of the tiger,” and achieved for the second time the highest place ever achieved by a Pirate grappler … and his second Times Wrestler of the Year honor.
Harsted rolled through the regular season and the state tournament competition until he ran into an old rival, Burlington Central’s Austin Macias, in the 2A 126 championship match. He was pinned in the first period, but finished with a 39-3 record this season and a huge 148-19 mark with dignity on the sport’s biggest stage.
“My sophomore year I was really pumped after I got second, and I worked really hard every day in and after practice,” said Harsted, who late this season passed former teammate and practice partner Micah Krueger's total of 134 career wins for the OHS record. “Last year, what happened was my own fault because I was getting burned out by the end of the season. I ended up not going as hard as I did my sophomore year or this season. It showed at the state tournament when I didn’t really show up to wrestle, and the kids I wrestled did.
"That hurt, but it helped me a lot. I knew if I wanted to get back to that, I had to work harder. I had two practices every day and it really sucked, but it was worth it.”
A new attitude for his senior year on the mat was in order, but first he had to shake off the negative feelings left by a disappointing and frustrating 1-8 football season. Once he did that, he adopted for the mat a one-match-at-a-time, anything-can-happen approach that carried him past the seeds, rankings and expectations and allowed him to just wrestle hard in his own style and accept whatever happens.
“Doing that, I felt again the hunger that I felt my sophomore year, when I went in and nobody thought I could do anything, I wasn’t ranked all year and I had nothing to lose,” said Harsted. “Last year, I was ranked No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 almost all year, and I would think, ‘Hey, I have to beat this kid because I’m ranked higher than him.’ It was a lot of pressure, and eventually I shut down.
"This year, I was No. 2, 3 or 4 most of the year, but I was able to put that out of my mind because I know now that means nothing, that anyone can win on any given day, and you just have to go out and wrestle the best you can.
“I knew I had to do that, to wrestle smart and leave it all on the mat. This was my last year, and it might be the last time I wrestled, ever, and I didn’t want to leave something I’d regret for the rest of my life.
"I wrestled free, and it was probably the best I’ve wrestled in a long time.”
The best measure of that came in the finals of the Lincoln-Way Tournament against Justin Benjamin, a state qualifier from 3A St. Charles, who he had wrestled and lost to over the summer. They battled a 1-1 tie into the third period, but Harsted capitalized on a mistake and won 5-2. That kind of improvement gave the Pirates star the confidence to take on the best.
“When you wrestle somebody, you have to hate him,” Harsted said. “You may know him and like him, but for that time on the mat you have to hate him. You have to flip the switch. You may have had a nice conversation with him just a few minutes ago, but on the mat you have to have the attitude that, ‘Hey, this guy thinks he’s better than me, and he’s wrong.’
"You wrestle hard and afterward you respect each other, because you both know how hard wrestling is, how hard you’ve worked to get there. You can be friends, just not on the mat.”
Wins over Woodstock Marian’s Dan Valeria (6-2), LeMont’s Drew Nash (6-5) and Carbondale’s Zach Willard (5-2) sent him against Macias, who had beaten him 7-3 in the final of the Sycamore Sectional. His runner-up finish was his second and just the fifth by a Pirate wrestler after Wally Griglione (138 in 1966), Casey Carrino (130 in 2003) and Daniel Close (145 in 2015).
Harsted will soon make another friend, the coach of the sport he decides to take part in at college. He is expected to choose within a month from between NCAA Division II McKendree, D-III North Central and Wheaton, where he hopes to wrestle and vault, and D-I Buffalo, at which he would only wrestle.
“Losing the state championship was heart-breaking because the championship was my goal, but it was a great season for me and for my team. We all did so well,” Harsted said. “God has just blessed me with so many things.
"I can now just move on to what’s next in my life and be very, very happy.”