OTTAWA — Daniel Close knew something needed to change.
After a highly successful but not state-level freshman season, the Ottawa wrestler knew he needed to improve this winter in order to take the next step.
“At the beginning of the season, I told myself, ‘I need to be a better wrestler than I am,’” Close said. “As a freshman, I didn’t really know all the different moves that I needed to know. I had a few moves, but as a sophomore I wanted to get moves to take people down.”
The 138-pound sophomore wanted to become less defensive and more offensive.
“The freshman Danny Close was a very defensive wrestler,” Ottawa coach Peter Marx said. “He’d wait for you to shoot for his legs and once you did he’d switch out. If you had a quick shot and a good move, he was in trouble, so we talked about how he needed to develop more of an offense and how he needed to attack more.
“His first few matches this year he shot more and it was a real big change. Developing that offense from freshman to sophomore year and becoming a better wrestler at neutral was a big thing for him. It made a big difference.”
It showed on the mat.
This season Close had an area-best 39 wins, placed in every tournament in which he competed, won the Class 2A Pontiac Regional and finished second at the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference Meet and the 2A Rochelle Sectional.
He capped his standout sophomore season at the IHSA state tournament, where he placed an area-best fourth to become the youngest state medalist in Ottawa wrestling history.
This season Close not only grew as a wrestler but also grew into the 2012-13 NewsTribune Wrestler of the Year.
“Watching Danny grow as a wrestler was amazing,” Marx said. “He was always a very good defensive wrestler as a freshman, but to see him become more a well-rounded wrestler and to build off the success he had as a freshman was great. He was never satisfied with where he was at and always strived for more.”
Close is the first Ottawa wrestler to ever win the award.
He is the second consecutive sophomore to claim the honor and the second sophomore to ever win the award outright.
The honor came after a summer of hard work in which Close — who went 25-17 as a 120-pound freshman but didn’t advance out of the regional — hit the weight room and turned into a 138-pounder.
He used his strength and experience to roll into the postseason and to state, where he went 4-2 and achieved his goal of winning more matches at state than his brother David, a 2007 Ottawa alumnus who was unable to win a match at state when he wrestled for the Pirates.
After winning four matches at state, Close made sure to inform his brother, who is currently located in Japan with the U.S. Navy.
“It was awesome,” Close said of medaling. “It’s sort of his fault — in a good way — that I’m here because he really helped me get here. He wrestled with me all the time when we were young. The mentality of ‘No pain, no gain,’ he kind of put that into my head and that never left. I never quit.”
That was evident in his work ethic and on the mat, particularly against Dixon’s Kylian Lally, who became Close’s biggest rival.
After the two split matches in the regular season, Lally beat Close for the NIB 12 Conference title before the two met a fourth time at state with a state medal on the line.
This time, Close came out aggressive and held on for a 4-2 decision to guarantee himself a state medal.
“At state, I knew I had to come out with the mentality of, ‘I have to win because I want to place,’” Close said. “I did just that, and it was the best feeling ever to place and win the rivalry.”
It just showed Close’s continued development both on an off the mat.
“Last year, he led more by example,” Marx said. “Freshman year, he was pretty quiet and pretty reserved, but this year he started to get a little more vocal while also leading by example. He’d be one of the first kids here, unroll the mats and mop the mats.”
With his state medal in tow, Close is now aiming to do better.
“It’s nice that he reached his goal of placing, but he’s not satisfied with that,” Marx said. “He’s already lifting and will wrestle in the offseason in Greco and freestyle. That’s just going to make him all that much better. He’s not satisfied with fourth place. He wants to be in that grand march and he still has a chance to do that the next two years.”
Taking part in the grand march means wrestling for a state title.
“Next year, I want to become a better wrestler overall,” Close said. “I just want to fight for that No. 1 spot.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.