By GARY LARSEN
For any big-school wrestlers who question the quality of small-school wrestling, Class A Stillman Valley’s Jared Van Vleet has a message that should be stamped on a t-shirt.
“Don’t judge me until you wrestle me,” Van Vleet said.
Every year, Stillman Valley competes in tournaments at Prospect and Geneva, so plenty of big-school wrestlers have had the chance to judge Van Vleet.
The kid has done all right. On Saturday he won his second individual title at Geneva and on Dec. 9 he won the third Prospect title of his career.
Currently ranked first at 132 in Class 1A by Illinois Matmen, Van Vleet is a senior and a three-time individual state place-winner. He placed fifth at 113 as a freshman, sixth at 120 as a sophomore and was a state runner-up at 126 last year.
Last year’s loss on the big stage of a state title mat was a revelation of sorts of Van Vleet. He lost by first-period pin to Althoff’s Chase Bittle and his immediate reaction was one seen countless times each year inside the State Farm Center in Champaign.
“I ran off,” Van Vleet said. “I found a quiet spot in the arena and just kind of laid down for a second. I was stunned that I had performed that way. Physically, that’a a match I should have done much better in. It was almost like a part of me that I’d never seen before and I was surprised by it.”
But almost just as fast as feelings of shock and regret sunk in, they soon gave way to a larger insight into the ancient and educational properties of adversity.
“Losing reveals character but to me it also teaches a person how they want to build their character,” he said. “I knew that my reaction to that loss was going to define who I was as a person and as a competitor.
“So that moment taught me what it’s like to lose on a big stage and it revealed how I should respond in that moment. I don’t want to say I got over it but I knew I had to go right back to work. And it showed me that I don’t want to ever be known as a person that’s going to throw a fit over losing or make a big scene over winning.
“Then I went up and hugged my family and hugged my friends and thanked them for coming out, and I kind of reassured them that I still had my senior year left.”
All of that might sound surprisingly mature coming from a typical teenager, but then Van Vleet is not typical.
He’ll wrestle at the college level next year and his five visits included Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue and Northern Iowa. But Van Vleet heard a calling beyond his competitive desires and scholastic goals.
“They were all fantastic schools and those coaches were great, but in the end I chose the Air Force Academy,” Van Vleet said. “I want to be a part of something more. The other schools can offer a great wrestling program and a great education, but the Air Force was the only place other than West Point and the Naval Academy where I could be a part of something more, and serve and protect my country. That’s ultimately what it came down to.”
If the teenaged years are the prime age for self-absorbed behavior, somebody forgot to tell Van Vleet. “You don’t always run into a kid like Jared,” Stillman Valley coach Jamie McCarty said.
“His parents have kept him grounded. They’ve had him doing volunteer work at the hospital and things like that and they’ve taught him to stay humble.”
Where his wrestling is concerned, Van Vleet has always been good on his feet, he can defend shots with the best of them, and he’s gotten better on top since reaching last year’s state finals.
His mental approach has also changed. Van Vleet admits that prior to last year’s state final against Bittle, he was buried too far inside his own head.
“I think I failed myself mentally,” Van Vleet said. “I let it get to me, and that’s something I’ve been working on this year. I let the type of wrestler Bittle was get to me. I started to defend what he was doing instead of working my offense.
“I was wrestling to keep from losing instead of wrestling to win. I focused too much on what his strengths were and in the end, that was my demise.”
Back in 1996, when Illinois had a two-class system for wrestling, McCarty was a 1A state champion for Byron at 120 pounds. Like Van Vleet, McCarty placed second downstate as a junior.
He watched Van Vleet overthink Bittle and he sees it as a cautionary tale that coaches can’t repeat enough.
“Constantly thinking about what another guy does can psyche you out,” McCarty said. “There are guys who watch videotape of other top guys over and over again but that’s not the same as wrestling a match against a kid.
“Even when I wrestled, I had teammates that got involved in that mind game and when it came to crunch time, they lost. I’ve coached kids that would get beat by lesser wrestlers because they psyched themselves out before a match.”
Van Vleet was back on the mats the Monday after last year’s state tournament. He wanted to get right back to work preparing for an off-season that saw him become a Fargo all-American.
His next goal is to become Stillman Valley’s 15th state champion in February. The school has produced 14 individual state champions since Mark Johnson won the crown at 105 pounds in the 1973-74 season. JJ Whaley was the school’s most recent state champion, winning the third of his three consecutive titles at 126 pounds in 2013.
Van Vleet credits McCarty for helping him become the wrestler he is today, and McCarty has watched Van Vleet make the journey from a boy to a young man.
“His freshman and sophomore years, he wasn’t as mature as he is now,” McCarty said. “I think he thought that some things were just going to happen because he was good at certain things. But as he matured he learned to reflect a lot, and look at some of the things he’s not as strong at, and he put the time in to improve in those areas. He’s grown as an individual and he now doesn’t take anything for granted.”
Van Vleet hopes that growth will lead him to the top step of the awards stand in Champaign this year.
“The best part of wrestling is wanting to continue to improve,” he said. “I’m never happy with where I’m at. I like that the work is never done and that improvement is a continuous journey.
“We’re on a mission now. The goal has always been to go out and compete but I always want to win the tournament, whatever it is. I’m thankful to place up high in tournaments but I’m still hungry because that’s not the way I want to go out. I want to win it.”