Ryan Hlinak came within one win of becoming an All-American Friday at the national championships in Dubuque, Illinois. Unseeded by the tournament committee, he beat his first opponent, the seventh seed, but lost his next two matches to the second seed and an unranked wrestler, respectively.
Out of 17 wrestlers competing in Hlinak's 149-pound weight class, the top 8 received All-American honors. Entering the season, Hlinak's goal was to make it to nationals. But once there, he said, "Obviously, your goals change."
That the fourth-year Hlinak was unseeded represented a small injustice, as he had beaten the eighth seed, Augsberg College's Dusy Dahlblom, only two weeks earlier to claim the Great Lakes regional title.
But while Hlinak acknowledged that he was "a little surprised" that he had not been placed ahead of Dahblom, he was satisfied with how the bracket unfolded. In fact, Hlinak could not have asked for a better opportunity for an eighth-place finish.
Only Ross Babcock of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater stood in his way. It was the same Ross Babcock whom Hlinak had beaten 5-2 at the North Central Invitational and whom another Chicago wrestler, first-year Jason Besse, had also beaten in an earlier dual meet.
This time, though, Babcock came out on top, 6-3, and Hlinak was forced to make the long trip back to Hyde Park wondering what he could have done differently.
What if, in his second match, he hadn't fallen absent-mindedly into a pin before even trying to make a legitimate move? Simpson College's Clint Manny cradled him to his back just 1:15 into the first period.
"I'd like to wrestle him again," Hlinak said with a laugh.
And what if he had been wrestling at his usual level against Babcock, instead of as listlessly as he did?
"It was disappointing," Hlinak said. "I don't know what it was, but for some reason, I was just incredibly fatigued at that point. I don't know whether it was from being on edge all day or what. I just didn't feel real into it, and I just didn't have anything left in my body."
Perhaps the drop in intensity came from the five-hour break he had to endure after winning his first match. Hlinak's 7-4 win over last year's second-place finisher Jason Morgan of Kings' College allowed him to release some of the nervous energy that had built up since he arrived in Dubuque on Wednesday night.
But the five hours of the afternoon spent back at the hotel was more than enough time for his stomach to tie itself back into knots.
Early in the match, Hlinak seemed to have recovered to form by reversing Babcock in the second period, gaining a 3-0 lead. Yet Babcock stubbornly refused to quit. Soon after he was reversed, Babcock came up with a reversal of his own to earn the first two of his six unanswered points.
Understandably, Hlinak would prefer to forget about the specifics of that run. He would instead like to remember how, after working the entire season on a special move called a "tilt" but never mastering it in competition, he used it to perfection against Morgan.
That growth helped produce the victory in the opening match of the biggest tournament of his life.
For Hlinak, whether or not the disappointing end will outweigh his other achievements remains to be seen. As of Sunday night, he was still caught in a tormented flux between satisfaction and frustration.
"It was great, great experience. It would be great to have another year to try it again, but it's also kind of nice to be done with wrestling too," he said. "I think I'm ready to retire."