College wrestling: Ex-Card aims for a fine finish

Mar. 19—KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Clay Carlson's final season at South Dakota State has been turbulent.

The 2018 Willmar High School graduate and two-time All-American for the Jackrabbits suffered a knee injury around Thanksgiving that required surgery. An infection in his knee added more time away from the wrestling mat. For the first time since cracking the varsity lineup at SDSU, Carlson was missing varsity duals.

"The biggest challenge with it has been the mental aspect of dealing with it," Carlson said. "You're not necessarily having the same success that you've had in the past and ... I was trying to get back into shape, which is something I've never really had to struggle with. Usually my MO is being in incredible shape."

Carlson is a sixth-year senior for SDSU. And if there's anything to be learned from his time with the Jackrabbits, it's that Carlson is going to battle back.

He did just that, qualifying for the NCAA Division I championships for the fourth time. He is the 30th seed in the 141-pound bracket with a 15-7 record. The national tournament takes place Thursday through Saturday at the T-Mobile Center. Carlson was an All-American in 2023, finishing fifth, and '21, when he took eighth.

"Even with the adversity that he has fought through this year, there's no doubt in my mind that there's (not) a kid tougher, there's (not) a kid that works harder than Clay Carlson," said SDSU head coach Damion Hahn. "We know the type of guy we have (and) we know what he's going to give you when he's out on that mat and let me tell you, man, he will go down swinging and he's going to fight.

"I'm particularly excited about him going into this last stretch because he is going to leave it on the mat."

Carlson's opening-round match is against the No. 3 seed in Iowa's Real Woods. Woods (18-3) is a transfer from Stanford who was the 141 runner-up in 2023 and is a three-time All-American. Carlson and Woods wrestled in the 2021 NCAA tournament, where Carlson won an 11-4 decision.

"I feel bad for Real Woods because this is not usually a first-round matchup; This is a quarterfinal (or) semifinal kind of deal," Hahn said. "Is this an ideal matchup for either opponent? No it's not, but hey, this is the national tournament. Every single match should be highly contested ... and that's what makes wrestling so much fun."

Carlson enjoys being in the role of underdog. And if he's got to get by Woods eventually, why not in the opening round?

"When there's no expectations on me, I feel like that's when I perform at my best," Carlson said. "That being said, none of these matches are going to be easy."

Nothing's been easy in Carlson's final season.

Along with the injuries, Carlson has been working on his master's degree in Science and Animal Science. His thesis is on how meat gets more tender as it ages.

"I was talking to my adviser in grad school about this today, actually and how I'm going to have a lot of work in writing my thesis in the next couple months," Carlson said. "I defend on June 7 and still have probably 50 pages to write on my thesis."

Carlson got married in April 2022 to Olivia Corneil, who is also a Willmar High School grad. Carlson credits Olivia for helping him navigate through the ups and downs of the trying season.

"My wife has probably been what's kind of kept the pieces held together this whole season dealing with surgery and stuff like that," Carlson said. "I literally have someone who takes care of me when I'm at home, so that's definitely a blessing. She's done a great job of helping me stay focused and just keeping a positive outlook on what's going to be my last season as a student-athlete at SDSU."

Carlson was 4-4 at one point this season but was able to win 11 of his final 14 matches. He finished fifth in the 141 bracket at the Big 12 Conference Championship on March 9-10 at Tulsa, Oklahoma with a 2-2 record.

After the delayed start, Carlson seems to have found his stride at the opportune time.

"My momentum has increased as the season has gone on and I don't know if the same can be said for my first-round opponent," Carlson said. "I think I'm sitting in a really good spot going into this match on Thursday. Ultimately, the biggest thing I'm trying to do is focus on today and I can deal with who I'm wrestling on Thursday when we get to that point."

Carlson is one of two sixth-year seniors — the other is Tanner Sloan, the 197 runner-up last season — competing for SDSU. The Jackrabbits are sending eight wrestlers to nationals, tied for the most in program history. They also sent eight to nationals last season.

By comparison, the Jackrabbits had four qualifiers in 2022, five in '21 and just one in '19. There was no national championship in '20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If it weren't for (Carlson and Sloan), we wouldn't be where we are. Let's just call it as it is," Hahn said. "These guys have devoted their six years and they have given us every ounce of their being. As a coach, goodness, you can't ask for anything more."

The highest seeded Jackrabbit is senior Cade DeVos. He is the No. 2 seed at 174. He has seen the impact both Carlson and Sloan have instilled in the wrestling room.

"Clay and Sloan are really two different people but they both are great leaders," DeVos said. "Clay's just awesome. He's really gritty. They both lead really well by example.

"When I was in my earlier years in college, I would always be like 'How is Clay so conditioned? I don't get it. How does he go out there and just not get tired during his matches?' Asking those questions is good because it helps you think because not all aspects of wrestling to improve are physical. A lot of it is mental, too."

With a career record of 116-48, Carlson is ready to wrestle the final time as a Jackrabbit with no inhibitions.

"I was talking to some of my coaching staff about it and it's like hey, we're just going to leave it on the mat," Carlson said. "That's what it comes down to, just making sure that you come off that mat and you know you gave it your all. That's what it ultimately comes down to. I'm really excited to just go have fun, open up, let it fly and come off the mat with no regrets."

Even after a turbulent season, Hahn knows not to bet against Carlson.

"This is a three-day competition and let me tell you, you are beat up," Hahn said. "And if there is somebody that can handle that adversity, Clay Carlson's the guy."