CENTRAL POINT — Maybe it all came a little too easy for Nate Walters, he’s not really sure.
As a freshman at Crater High, Walters placed fifth at the Class 6A state tournament to wrap up a wrestling season in which his older brother Morgan earned a state title and his Comets secured a third-place team trophy.
When the 2012 season was done, so was Walters.
He followed up with another impressive regular season as a sophomore, securing a No. 2 seed to his second state tournament.
Then something unusual happened. He lost. Twice. Both by 7-6 decisions to be ousted on the first day at Memorial Coliseum.
A repeat scenario didn’t seem likely when he finished as a regional runner-up in 2014 and secured a pin in his opening match at state as a junior, but it was all downhill from there for Walters. He had hardly given up a takedown all season and suddenly found himself getting tossed around in a 26-13 quarterfinals loss to eventual state runner-up Amari Sengsavanh. With waning confidence, Walters then lost his next match 12-5 and suddenly being a state-placer seemed a distant memory.
None of it is anything Walters is terribly proud of, or really wants to focus on these days, but all of it has made him into what he believes is a better person, teammate and wrestler for the Comets.
“The past two years, I don’t know, I just didn’t have the right mindset and kind of fell into a slump,” says Walters, who admits to not really training or lifting once his season was complete. “I don’t know really what happened but this year it hit me hard that this is my last year and I’ve got to give it all I’ve got.”
It’s a precautionary tale, and one that has made Walters such a valuable leader for Crater this season as it takes state-trophy hopes into this weekend’s Class 5A state tournament in Portland.
“One of the biggest things with Nate is he’s been a great leader for us this year,” says Comets head coach Greg Haga. “He does that not only by his actions but his attitude. He’s always upbeat and one of the hardest workers in the room, yet he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be a leader in the room.”
With a renewed focus and different mindset, Walters has been his dominant self in competition and even better when the spotlight isn’t beaming down. He enters the state tourney seeded fourth — but ranked second — at 145 pounds after an impressive run through to a Special District 3 championship. Walters also placed second at the Reser’s Tournament of Champions.
“There’s going to be a lot of tough kids there but I just have a mindset to win state this year,” says Walters. “It’s been my goal ever since I was young and I’m not going to let anything stop me this year. I’m going to give all I’ve got and just keep fighting every round and try my best to come out on top.”
“There’s a huge difference,” he adds of this year’s approach. “I feel like I’m a better wrestler. Once I figured out that if I have the right mindset and set goals and keep going out trying to achieve those goals every day, that made me a better wrestler.”
Walters’ evolution began in the offseason and is still going strong. What Haga is most pleased about is the impact stepping into a leadership role has had on one of the few seniors in his wrestling room.
“I think that leadership role has added to his focus in wrestling as well,” says Haga. “When you’re the leader, you can’t just talk the talk. When you’re the leader in the room and it’s time to get going and the coaches are getting after people to get going, you kind of have to set the example. I think that’s one thing that helped him keep on a level keel all year long. I think he’s just learned to enjoy the sport of wrestling more.”
Make no bones about it, when it’s time to put the hammer down and get the team going, Walters has not been shy about taking the reins this year. Beyond wins and losses, he says being able to help his teammates — hopefully pushing them the right way — has been the most important factor to his season.
“There’s a lot of talent on this team and I don’t think a lot of them can see just how good they are,” he says. “If our team just keeps fighting and doesn’t give up any pins and goes a full six minutes, we have a shot at the state tournament to take that title. I honestly believe that.”
Pushing his teammates to be at their best has also forced Walters to continually be at his best as well.
“I’m a senior and I’m the leader of the team and I’ve got to show them that I’m worth being the leader,” he said. “I have to prove to them that I’m worth being captain. I’m not just doing it for myself anymore, I’m doing it for my team.”
If anything, Walters wants to promote that opportunities like the ones facing him and his teammates beginning Friday should not be taken lightly.
“My sophomore year, I thought I would be in the finals at least,” he says. “I don’t know what happened there going two-and-out. My junior year, I thought I’d still get into the finals and I did better than the previous year but I still came up short. My mindset just wasn’t right but this year is different. I’m ready and I’m not going to let up.”
“I think I had a little bit too much confidence,” Walters adds of the past two state tourneys. “I thought I would just go straight through my kids and not even be touched. Then when I lost I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that just happened.’ This year I’m not even trying to be cocky or anything, I’m just believing in myself and going to give it everything I have for six minutes.”
Haga also envisions great things for Walters’ final run at a state title.
“He has had great years but it just hasn’t quite gone well for him for a couple years at the state tournament,” says the coach. “But this year the one thing I’ve noticed is his wrestling has gotten better as the year has gone on, where in his sophomore and junior years it kind of leveled off. He’s just different this year.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry