OTTAWA - With the Ottawa wrestling team struggling during the middle of last season and in desperate need of leadership, Pirates coach Peter Marx held a team meeting.
During his heart-to-heart talk, Marx described characteristics of a leader and what his expectations were for his captains.
He then asked his varsity squad which wrestler on the team best embodied the qualities.
The answer was nearly unanimous.
“Almost every single one of the kids said, ‘Danny Close,’” Marx said.
All of a sudden a freshman was the leader of the Pirates.
Less than two months into his prep wrestling career, Close became the first freshman captain in Ottawa wrestling history.
“Coach just said that I was a hard worker and that I had a great mindset,” said Close, who’s wrestled since he was young. “I thought it was awesome.”
Close remained as the team’s lone captain for the final two months.
“I had no problems with it at all,” Marx said of having a freshman captain. “I think it sent the message that we expect certain things out of you and, if you do what’s expected, you can be the captain. You don’t necessarily need to have the best record or anything like that to have those leadership qualities, but I think he (embodied the qualities I described) better than anyone else.”
Close led by example on and off the mat.
On the mat, the Pirate grappler went 25-17 at 120 pounds last year as a freshman, and has taken his game to a new level this winter.
As a returning sophomore captain, Close is currently 15-2 at 138 pounds heading into Thursday's triangular at La Salle-Peru.
“I want to be better than I was last year,” said Close, who finished fourth at the Class 2A La Salle-Peru Regional. “I think I have been so far. But I want to be a good all-around wrestler who can go to state.”
That starts Thursday and continues through the weekend as Close is expected to be one of the top wrestlers at 138 in the Lyle King Princeton Invitational Tournament, which starts at 4:30 p.m. Friday and continues at 9 a.m. Saturday with finals scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday.
In the notoriously difficult small-school tournament that featured 10 of the 14 Class 1A state champions last season, Close will compete in a tough weight class.
The 138-pound weight class features two returning state place winners, three more state qualifiers and eight kids who are ranked in Class 1A or 2A by IllinoisMatmen.com.
“I really want to see how I fare,” Close said of the PIT. “It’d be pretty great to do well. It can hopefully show how much I’ve improved from last year and show that all my hard work has paid off.”
That hard work included getting into the weight room during the offseason.
“Last year, he had a good year, but he was tentative and wasn’t really what you’d call strong,” Marx said. “This year, he’s gotten a lot bigger and stronger. He found out that the weight room is not his enemy and it’s actually his friend. I think last year was a great experience to see, ‘Holy smokes, I’m a 120 pounder but there’s 113 pounders who are bumping up (to 120) that are twice my size.’”
Close - who this fall was a tight end and an outside linebacker on the Ottawa sophomore football team - gave up baseball last spring in an effort to become a better wrestler.
In the wrestling offseason, he competed in numerous tournaments and attended wrestling camps.
One of his big goals was to become more aggressive.
“Last year it was scary (as a freshman), and I didn’t feel comfortable shooting and it threw my game off a little bit,” Close said. “This year I’ve comeback more confident.”
And still with the respect of his teammates.
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.