But in the three years since winning a state championship at Edison, the road to the 2018 NCAA wrestling championships at times felt miles away for Edison graduate Evan Cheek.
But when the Cleveland State University junior takes the mat Thursday at 141 pounds inside Quicken Loans Arena — the short, yet long, journey will be on his mind.
“Obviously a dream come true, growing up as a kid I always wanted to wrestle in college and be All-American,” Cheek said. “The best thing was to watch the NCAAs on television.
“This year, I’m going to be out there — and it’s a great feeling to have that hometown atmosphere,” he added. “I think it will give me more of a boost going into it.”
The improbable road for Cheek started less than a month after he won the Division III state championship at 126 pounds for the Chargers. Cleveland State had initially announced it was going to cut off funding for wrestling, only to backtrack and keep the sport funded — and safe from being cut.
Cheek stuck by the Viking program throughout that period of uncertainty. But a pair of solid seasons, 15-11 as a freshman, 27-10 as a sophomore, led to third-place finishes at the Eastern Wrestling League championships at 133 and 141.
That meant just missing out on an NCAA bid, and this year, though there were four available bids at 141 — Cheek was staring down an ominous path.
Fittingly seeded third, his first-round match was against George Mason’s Tejon Anthony, who wrestled at 149 all season, but decided to drop down a weight because more NCAA bids were available at 141.
“I had lost to him last year, so I knew drawing him first was going to be one of the toughest matches there,” Cheek said.
Tied at 2-2 with under 15 seconds remaining in the third period, Cheek was able to catch Anthony and put him on his back for a stunning pin at 6:48 to move on.
“That right there started momentum for tournament, because he was a real good opponent who like I said, had already beaten me,” Cheek said. “Sticking him like that gave me a fire.”
Up next was No. 2 seed Tyson Dippery from Rider, who had transferred from Rutgers, and had already beaten Cheek earlier in the season in a dual. He led Dippery by a 4-2 score entering the third period, but the Rider standout was able to tie the match and force a sudden-victory session.
With an NCAA berth going to the winner, Cheek scored what he said was an easy takedown as the first OT was winding down for a 6-4 win.
“Right off the bat, I beat two kids who had beaten me,” he said. “He was ranked above me, and all that just fueled me.”
In the finals, Cheek had nothing to lose against one of the top wrestlers in the country.
And he won big.
Facing Clarion’s Brock Zacherl, who was 27-0 and ranked fourth in the nation at the weight, Cheek went on the offensive immediately with a takedown less than 20 seconds into the match.
Zacherl, who was Cheek’s lone defeat by four points at the EWL championships a year ago, went in on several shots but only managed an escape point and a 2-1 deficit.
That’s when Cheek saw an opportunity to duck under Zacherl and ran with it.
With just eight seconds left in the first period, Cheek crunched him up and put him on his back for the stunning pin and EWL title.
The dominating performance also earned Cheek the Outstanding Wrestler award for the tournament.
At 24-8, Cheek’s turnaround has been about trusting his own offense.
“Getting that first takedown, that was a key thing for me this year,” he said. “Knowing I could score on guys that early — I think it gets in their head, too.”
His draw Thursday at the NCAAs has both a local — and ironic twist. Cheek will again be a big underdog, but that’s because of his opponent’s season to date, not his.
Dean Heill (Oklahoma State) is the No. 6 seed in the weight class at 23-5. He’s also the two-time defending national champion who had a 45-win streak snapped this season — then went on to lose four more times, giving him a lower seed than usual.
Heill is also a four-time state champion — at four different weights — from Northeast Ohio power Lakewood St. Ed’s.
“Dean is a two-time returning champ, but he’s lost a few matches this year and I think I match up pretty well against him,” Cheek said. “I need to try and slow him down and use my offense.
“I need to keep his scrambles contained and try not to scramble, and use my attacks,” he added. “I kind of like it … I feel like it’s a good opportunity.”
At Edison, Cheek won 214 matches, the fourth-most in Ohio history. That included 117 matches over his final two seasons, with his 59 wins as a senior ranking as the seventh-most in state history. His 124 falls also ranks 11th in OHSAA history.
“Edison played a huge role in my success,” said Cheek, one of seven state champions in EHS history. “Those guys know how to pick apart their wrestlers and let them flow with their own offense and defense.
“They know how to further what you’re doing and not change you,” he added. “I learned a lot on how to trust what I do, not to change for my opponents. That helped me a lot with my success.”