The best of the best.
That’s who stood before Washington’s Hunter O’Connor as he looked out at the field of competitors at the AAU Scholastic Duals this week in Orlando, an AAU wrestling national tournament known best as the “Disney Duals.”
“You go into this thinking you’re pretty good,” O’Connor said. “But the guys here are really tough. You don’t really see this tough of guys in South Dakota.”
The tournament features some of the nation’s most accomplished prep wrestlers, as all competitors in the District Duals category were required to be place-winners at their respective state tournaments earlier this year.
Every single wrestler in the district division has climbed the podium before, with states like grappling powerhouse Iowa opting to send only state champions to the host venue – ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.
For O’Connor, the week – weigh-ins were Saturday, with matches taking place Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – represented a seismic leap in quality of competition.
“It can help you figure out what you need to work on and stuff like that,” said O’Connor, who finished fourth in the 132-pound class in February at the state tourney. “You go into this thinking you’re pretty good, and you figure out pretty quickly how good everyone else is.”
O’Connor’s team – South Dakota Blue, the 14-member (one wrestler for each weight class), all-star team competing in District Duals – finished third in pool play. They won four of six duals in pool play, but lost their next two duals to avoid placing. O’Connor tallied a 5-3 mark himself, which would stand as a successful week given the competition.
That’s not to say he was satisfied.
“I think I probably could have done better if it was in a different setting,” O’Connor said. “It being down here away from home, I guess I did pretty good.”
O’Connor had plenty of family support close by, his mother, Kris O’Connor, and sister, Alyson, making the trip to cheer on the to-be senior. They even cued up FaceTime so father, Dennis, could see Hunter’s matches from his tablet back home.
The Warriors standout was also joined by his cousin and teammate, Chase O’Connor, last year’s runner-up at 138 pounds. The cousins were the lone Sioux Falls representatives in Orlando.
But the week also allowed ample opportunities to make new friends. There were actually 42 South Dakota wrestlers making the trip, as two additional teams consisting of non-medalists went to compete in the Developmental Duals category.
“Their downtime was pretty much spent together,” said Kris O’Connor. “It was a good way for them to get to know each other.”
Before embarking, the 42 wrestlers came together for an intensive two-day training camp. That set the tone for the trip being more work than play, but it also accelerated the bonding process.
“We’ve pretty much all been hanging out,” Hunter O’Connor said. “All the time between matches we’ve been hanging.”
From a tactical standpoint, Disney Duals help expose wrestlers to styles and techniques less commonly seen back home.
“You just get ready for the matches like you usually do, but it’s actually quite a bit different,” Hunter O’Connor said. “These guys do a lot of different stuff.”
Getting that exposure – and competing against some of the nation’s top grapplers – comes at a good time considering the varsity season is still months away.
“It shows them that they’ve got to work a little harder,” said Dennis O’Connor. “This is pretty much the highest level they’ll ever face.”