Mentor wrestling: Motivated Nick Blackburn wants to be program's next state champion

Jan. 2—Jogging around the mats in Mentor's wrestling room on a warmup jaunt before practice, Nick Blackburn glances up at the wall at each turn.

There hangs a cutout in the shape of Ohio listing the three state wrestling champions who came from the Mentor program, with the words, "Who's Next?"

With each glance up at that sign, Blackburn's pre-practice jog quickens into more of a sprint. Each glance serves as motivation.

A few months ago, Blackburn signed a national letter of intent, accepting a wrestling scholarship to Central Michigan. It's a step he's greatly looking forward to. But the sign on the wall in Mentor's wrestling room is what he wants more — at least right now.

"I look at the sign every day," he said. "Larry Chesborough. 1982. Who's Next? I want to be that 'Who's Next.' I want my name to be there."

There was a time Blackburn was about as active of a three-sport athlete as you'd find around Mentor. For most of his life you could find him playing football in the fall, wrestling in the winter and baseball in the spring. And football had to share time with Blackburn's first love for years — soccer.

But after finishing as a state alternate in the Division I district wrestling tournament his freshman year, Blackburn shelved his other sports and put all his eggs into one basket — wrestling. By doing so, it earned him a college wrestling scholarship and a shot at his ultimate dream to be a state champion and put his name up on the wall as Mentor's first state champion in 32 years.

"I work really hard," he said. "Burning out is just a mental state. I watch film. I am excited for every practice. I'm always working and learning. To me, burning out only happens when you get bored. And I'm having fun."

Blackburn heads into this weekend's Perry Pin City tournament with an 11-3 record. Two of his losses came at the prestigious Walsh Jesuit Ironman, while another came last week at the Brecksville Holiday Tournament, where he finished third at the 144-pound weight class.

He is ranked third in the state by at 144 pounds behind Dublin Coffman's Omar Ayoub and St. Edward's Kade Brown.

"I don't know. I don't check," Blackburn said when asked about his ranking. "I have no clue. I look at everybody the same. Whoever they put in front of me, that's fine. I'll take them out."

Blackburn has felt that way ever since last winter when, coming into the state tournament as a No. 4 seed, he battled through a tough bracket to place third at 132 pounds with consolation bracket wins over two wrestlers ranked ahead of him — Brecksville's Kaden Jett and Mayfield's Vinnie D'Alessandro.

He took the momentum from that state tournament run, part of a 53-5 record as a junior, into the offseason. He made it all the way to the blood round (the consolation semifinals) before losing at the Virginia Beach nationals, he was part of a team from Ohio that placed second in the Junior Duals in Oklahoma, finishing 6-4 there, went undefeated at the Disney Duals in Florida on a team from Austintown-Fitch, and then honed his skills further with a 4-2 record at the rugged Freesyle Nationals in Fargo, N.D.

In between, he took college visits. And fell in love with the one in Mount Pleasant, Mich., home of the Central Michigan Chippewas.

"I visited there in early October and loved it," Blackburn said. "I had two more visits to other schools scheduled after that, but I canceled them. I just had this feeling with my visit to Central Michigan. It's a great school where I can get a great education. The coaches are very professional and have a lot of experience. Most of the guys on the staff have wrestled there, so it's a great culture. I just felt I fit right in."

Central Michigan won out over opportunities at Ohio, Army, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. He plans to major in mechanical engineering. He will be on a partial athletic scholarship to go along with academic scholarships he is eligible to gain.

To get a jump-start on his post-graduate work, Blackburn took two composition classes at Lakeland last year, is taking a college economics class now and will take a college psychology class next semester. In addition, he's taking a welding class at Euclid.

"I really like that. It's hands-on learning," he said of his welding sessions. "That's how I decided I want to do engineering. It's based off of welding."

A meticulous worker in and out of the classroom, Blackburn said he's pleased with where he is at the start of the new year. Grades are in order, his college letter of intent is signed and his senior year of wrestling is right where he wants it to be. Now it's a matter of finishing strong.

"It's exciting to get my college decision out of the way before my season started," he said. "Now I want that state championship. Ever since my freshman year when my dad and I sat down and wrote my goals — that's been the goal. To win that championship."

And thus answer that question — Who's Next? — that he sees every day on the wall of the wrestling room.