Photos by Paul Flessland
Imagine a successful high school career ending without a scholarship offer from a Division I school. Now, imagine walking on to a Top 25 program and being thrown into varsity duty your first year of eligibility. That’s been the story of Nick O’Brien so far during his wrestling career. He catches us up on his journey to the Division I mat and where he plans on going next.
The 2013 Bison wrestling recruiting class was ranked the fourth best in the country, according to Intermat. Roger Kish and the NDSU program were ahead of five traditional collegiate powers such as Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma State. These five schools have made up the last 27 NCAA team wrestling championships.
The number four ranking on Intermat not only caught the attention of college wrestling fanatics in Fargo and across the nation, it showed high school standouts that something special was brewing at NDSU.
Qualifying for the Minnesota Class AAA wrestling state tournament five times should be enough to get a wrestler enough exposure to land a Division I scholarship. But, for Nick O’Brien, his five appearances at state was only enough to land him a handful of Division II and Division III offers out of Wayzata High School.
O’Brien compiled a high school record of 194-42 and wasn’t going to go to any college throwing scholarship money his way to come wrestle for their school. The classroom has and always will be his top priority.[/text_output]
[image link=”true” src=”4243″ alt=”NDSU Bison wrestling Nick O’Brien”]
[text_output]O’Brien was fortunate enough to have his high school, which houses around 3,300 students, offer an introductory course in engineering. Also, his high school coach had a connection with a head coach from a school known for its engineering program.
Tim Hartung was the head coach at Wayzata High School during O’Brien’s time as a Trojan. Hartung was a decorated wrestler at the University of Minnesota and still holds the longest winning streak in school history at 58.
Hartung remained at Minnesota after his wrestling career to coach. He left in 2004 to help revamp the Wayzata High School program that had been struggling to stay on par with other Class AAA programs.
“We have a ton of kids, but no one wrestles at Wayzata, which is dumb,” O’Brien said. “He (Hartung) put us through hard workouts. I got a little experience before I came to school with what it could be like.”
O’Brien said he fell in love with NDSU while on a recruiting trip his junior year. The school offered a strong engineering program and it would be somewhat of a homecoming for his father, John, who went to school here for two years. He also noticed the recruiting class that came in before the 2013 season was stacked with talent.
O’Brien said he got a taste of Kish’s tough workouts while under the tutelage of another Golden Gopher wrestler. The only difference in college was a number of practice partners O’Brien can wrestle against.
“It’s also a D-I program that’s up-and-coming with a lot of good recruits that came in the year before me,” O’Brien said. He spent his first season at NDSU as a redshirt. “I was excited for good practice partners and then a chance to be on the varsity, which is decent for a good program.”[/text_output]
[image link=”true” src=”4244″ alt=”NDSU Bison wrestling Nick O’Brien”]
[text_output]The gap is generally wider when it comes to the practice regiment from high school to college. Wrestling for a coach with Division I chops prepared O’Brien for his decision to walk on to the Bison wrestling program.
Success came fairly quickly for the walk-on. O’Brien was one of the most successful redshirts in the Bison program, wrestling in seven tournaments last year. He won three tournaments, wrestling unattached in the 133-pound weight class.
O’Brien wrestled well last season, but starting for the varsity team wasn’t in the plans, at least not as early as this season.
Junior Justin Scherkenbach was projected to return as the starter at the 133-pound weight division for the Bison this season. But a knee injury this offseason has restricted his practice time and he’s yet to see the mat this season.
With the rest of the 133-pound wrestlers redshirting, Kish gave the varsity spot to O’Brien.
“Scary,” is the word O’Brien used to describe his new starting role. And you can’t blame him. He’s already had to wrestle the No. 11 and No. 12 wrestlers in the country at the 133-pound weight division. It’s been a tall order for the walk-on.
But to the surprise of anyone except O’Brien, he hung tough and has compiled a record of 7-4 through the Bison Open this season. He took home the championship in his weight class at the Bison Open this November.
“I’m here by choice and I’m here working really hard,” O’Brien said. “Maybe it will also play into getting a scholarship down the road. I’m going to keep plugging away.”
O’Brien will keep his nose to the grindstone while he fills in for Scherkenbach, who expects to return in early December. The tightly-knit Bison wrestling team has also made it easier for the walk-on.
O’Brien has been thrown into a tough situation this season but has handled it with the maturity rarely seen by a redshirt freshman. Kish has found a star in the making, and only O’Brien can control where his story ends at NDSU.[/text_output]