Small in stature, small in weight, but large in terms of heart and stamina, Homestead 113-pound junior wrestler Messi Elgin is going to the WIAA state meet.
He was the first three Highlanders in wrestlebacks for second in the WIAA Oconomowoc sectional on Feb. 18, having upset North Shore Conference nemesis Ryan Kuesel of Nicolet in the third-place bout.
Then when Menomonee Falls' Alec Lind lost in the 113-pound final, Elgin (27-15 overall) saw his chance. Moving like a dervish and obeying coach Ernie Millard's commands of "Keep shooting," Elgin simply overwhelmed Lind, 13-8, in the wrestleback for his first state berth.
"I'm going for the first time, so this a big deal," said an exhausted but happy Elgin shortly after the Lind match. "I wanted to go to state so bad. Everyone was pushing me to go 100 percent, shouting 'Shoot, shoot.' That really helped a lot."
Unfortunately for the Highlanders, 2016 state meet qualifier Cooper Hunt at 120 and Jacob Zupke at 170 pounds came up short in their wrestlebacks for state berths.
Millard looked to stay positive.
"I couldn't have been prouder of all three of those guys," said Millard. "We knew our route to state was going to come through the wrestleback because there were just too good of wrestlers for us to beat on our side of the bracket.
"Messi is such a great story. He's adopted, and he's from Eithiopia. He's just one of the classic great stories."
Elgin will get Hartford junior Jalen Spuhler (42-7) in his first-round bout when the WIAA state individual tournament commences at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Kohl Center in Madison. Action will continue through the finals on Saturday, Feb. 25.
This is the second state tournament for Elgin this school year, as he was a key part of the Highlanders' powerhouse North Shore Conference championship cross-country team.
And as he was breathing hard after the wrestleback, his fourth match of the day, he said quietly, "Cross-country is much easier than this."
Elgin began his day with a pin of a Marquette opponent in the quarterfinals (3:37) before he eventually fell to class champion Dominic Dentino of Arrowhead on a pin (1:39).
But he was ready for Kuesel. He got the first takedown and then just kept rolling all the way through to a 13-3 victory.
"When Messi got that first takedown, you could see a change in Kuesel's demeanor," Millard said. "Kuesel knew he was not going to state (because Lind lost to Dentino in the final).
"He's (Elgin) such a young guy, just figuring it out. We were talking to him and Cooper after dinner. Part of the reason that he's at state is because of (his work with) Cooper. Both are on the cross-country team, so they know what it's like to work. Just very satisfying."
Except for Hunt (29-9). He pinned a Marquette opponent in the first round (1:43) and then lost to class champion Keegan O'Toole of Arrowhead on a technical fall. He pinned an Oconomowoc foe in 1:35, and when Falls' Matt Anderson lost in the final to O'Toole, Hunt had his chance at a wrestleback.
But the very unorthodox Anderson stymied Hunt at every turn and prevailed in a closer-than-it looked 7-1 decision.
Falls coaches came up to Hunt and consoled and congratulated him for his effort afterward.
Zupke put in a brave effort, too. He pinned a Milwaukee King opponent in 3:47 in his quarterfinal but lost to Nicolet powerhouse Parker Keckeisen on a pin in 1:37 in the semifinal. He beat a Hamilton wrestler, 6-0, in his consolation bout, setting up a wrestleback with Connor Goodman of Pewaukee.
It was an uphill task for Zupke (24-16), as he fell by a 12-3 count. What made it harder for Zupke is that he was very sick Thursday and Friday.
"I didn't know if he was going to wrestle until about 6:20 a.m. that morning," Millard said. "You could tell by the wrestleback that he had nothing left in the tank."
Millard said the team portion of the season was a success considering the Highlanders only had 14 wrestlers all season and that all three sectional wrestlers return.
"Our No. 1 goal will be to build up numbers," he said.