Hidlay earns silver in Freestyle, Greco-Roman

FARGO, N.D. – Most sports fans wouldn’t associate North Dakota’s largest city with one of the biggest sports events in the nation.

Except wrestling fans. In the world’s oldest sport, Fargo is the Super Bowl. The World Series. The Stanley Cup.

It’s home to the ASICS/Vaughan Junior and Cadet Nationals, a tournament that draws thousands of young men who simply want to prove they’re the best. Over a span of just under two weeks, the nation’s top youth wrestlers compete in Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling.

Lewistown’s Hayden Hidlay made the trip this summer, and brought home the hardware – he finished second in his weight class in both styles of wrestling, winning 11 of 12 matches at 126 pounds in each.

The only opponent who got the best of Hidlay was Zahid Valencia of California, who won the title both in the 73-man Greco bracket and the 87-man Freestyle bracket. Hidlay says he got that far because he went to Fargo planning to win.

“Going in there, you just have to have the mindset that you’re going to win every match,” he said. Although it’s possible to go for gold after a loss, “The only way to guarantee a spot in the finals is to win every match.”

In Greco, he walked over opponents from New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Georgia, Illinois and Kansas, all technical falls but one, which was a pin. His last opponent before the finals was another Californian, Jaden Enriquez, whom he beat by tech fall to advance. Enriquez was the only grappler other than Valencia who Hidlay saw in both brackets.

“People seem to be afraid of Greco. They don’t feel comfortable in it because you can’t touch the other person’s legs, you can’t use your legs for offense,” Hidlay explained. “It’s a lot of upper body. I think they’re actually a lot the same. You have to keep good positioning the whole time.”

Freestyle went much the same – a tech fall bonanza with one fall, a win over Enriquez before he saw Valencia, a second-place finish.

“Freestyle has taught me to finish my shots quicker. If you don’t finish your shots you’re going to get rolled through,” he said. “It teaches you a lot especially from the neutral position.

“I came away with second but I don’t think it was because I was outworked or anything. It’s just at that point in time, he was better than I was. It’s always something you can work on.”

It’s something the Mifflin County High School sophomore – well, soon-to-be sophomore – has been working on all his life. Before reaching an age where he can drive, he’s already reached pinnacles of success that take much longer – or are never seen.

Hidlay comes from an athletic family, which may play a role in it. His father Mark, an elementary school principal, is the only athlete in county history to have won MERF Radio’s Ufema (football) and Rothrock/Webber (basketball) awards. Hayden made it a trifecta for the family when he won the Rod Tate award as the county’s best wrestler as a freshman.

While he was out west seeking fame on the mats, older brother Heath – who plays baseball and basketball – was helping the Mifflin County American Legion baseball team in its quest for a trip to the state tournament. Trent, the youngest of the three boys – who also wrestles – is doing the same for the county’s 14-year-old Babe Ruth all-stars.

Hayden? He just wrestles.

“Whenever I stopped playing all the other sports it made me think about what I want to do, how I’m going to get into college,” he explained. “This is the best option for me. Once I committed full time to it, it was more enjoyable because I didn’t have to worry about doing anything else.

“I’ve fully committed all my time to getting better at it. I just feel really comfortable when I’m out there – there’s nothing else that I have to think about.”

His summer regimen includes trips to Lewisburg and Lock Haven for training with the Bison Legend Club and Neil Turner’s Mat Town USA. He’s also had high school coach Kirby Martin to rely on, even in the offseason.

“Coach Martin has still been with me throughout the spring. This summer he gave me some guidance. I’ve been lifting a lot with him,” Hidlay said. “It’s the offseason for our team, but our coaches, especially coach Martin, have played a role in it. He’s interested in seeing how I do in this.”

After a four-day camp at Pitt-Johnstown, Hidlay climbed aboard a bus with the rest of Team Pennsylvania. He was in awe when he stepped off.

“I’ve never been to a bigger venue for a wrestling tournament before. The place is huge,” he said. “When you go out there you’re kind of shocked because you see people like Cael Sanderson and John Smith walking around. Once you get down there it’s a really cool tournament. You wrestle kids from all over the place.”

Hidlay was stunned by a tough draw in the PIAA championships in his first try, but never lost his composure. He’s taking time to enjoy the moment of being a national runner-up, but also thinking about what he’s learned from the trip and how it will benefit him next March.

“Next year I’m not going to be worried about the weight class I’m wrestling. I bumped up two weight classes since the regular season and I think it’s made me better,” he said. “I’m wrestling better because I’m more healthy. I don’t have to worry about making weight.”

And he saw that, among the best, he was, well, one of the best.

“When I got out there I saw how great it was for me,” he said. “It proved to me that I was right in contention with everybody who was on top of the leaderboards in the nation.”