MADISON — Like a caged tiger, Sheboygan North senior wrestler Aaron Rothwell paced the inner halls of the Kohl Center. When it was time to go to the mat for the start of his match, he paced some more.
He was ready for this moment. He’s been ready. For a long time.
“Really, my whole life,” said Rothwell.
On Saturday at the Kohl Center, Rothwell finished off an unbeaten, nearly unscored upon season by beating Ayoola Olapo of Menomonee Falls, 3-2, in the WIAA Division 1 State Individual Wrestling Championships title match at 182 pounds.
He finishes this season 47-0 and with a gold medal, just the third in North’s long history (Ryan Gottsacker, 1995, Sam Mursau, 1990).
Last year, Rothwell won two matches at State and took 33-4, but he considered it a major disappointment. This year was different.
“I was a good wrestler last year, but I didn’t have the confidence,” said Rothwell. “This year, I had the confidence.”
North coach Jake Frias said the team calls it “his swagger.” That’s the pacing, the staredown, the shuffling.
This week, that also included a smile, to his coaches, the last thing he did before every match at State. He had fun. Now, he has a championship.
Rothwell and Olapo know each other well on the mat. Rothwell won a close meeting 3-0 in the third round of the USA Wrestling Preseason Nationals in November, a tournament Rothwell went on to win. He also edged Olapo 3-1 in a scrimmage that same month. And each Sunday, the two spar as members of the Ringers Academy in Milwaukee.
After a scoreless first period, Rothwell gained the first point on an escape to open Period 2. The two took turns driving each other out of the circle until the final whistle sounded.
Thirty seconds into the third period, however, is when Rothwell won the title. A takedown gave him a 3-1 advantage.
With under one minute remaining, Rothwell allowed Olapo to escape, making the score 3-2. Potentially unsound strategy, but the Raiders wrestler has not been taken down once this season, and has only been scored one once, on a reversal.
“He’s so strong and so fundamental,” Frias said. “He’s the only wrestler I’ve ever coached where I’ve had to go ‘full-go’ in practice or I get hurt.”
When the final whistle sounded, his celebration was mild: a pointing to his family in the crowd, a light jog with a goofy, understated muscle-flex back to his coaches.
But Rothwell, who will wrestle at the NCAA Division I level for the University of Pittsburgh next year, knows how big this was, and knows what it took to get on the top of the podium.
“Since fifth grade,” he said, “I’ve been thinking of being a high school champion.”
Frias saw Rothwell accomplish some amazing things this season, and he offered a succinct interpretation of it all.
“A perfect season.”