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DECATUR — Millikin wrestler Chris Williams was out of time.

It was the start of the season and the 141-pound senior and three-time Division III All-American was not able to take part in the Big Blue’s dual meet schedule.

Before transferring to Millikin four years ago, Williams used a semester of his eligibility, and so to have a chance to be able to qualify for his fourth trip to the NCAA Championships in the spring, he had to sit out the first half of the season.

Surprisingly, the situation couldn’t not have worked out better for him.

“It was a good thing," Williams said. "I’ve had a lot of injuries since I came here. I’ve had a torn hamstring, a meniscus surgery, a pulled UCL in my arm."

Williams has made up for his lost time with a 13-2 record since returning to the mat and earning a fourth trip to the NCAA Championships next weekend in Roanoke, Va.

Joining Williams at the NCAA Championships are 197-pound senior Keajion Jennings (26-3) and 157-pound sophomore Braden Birt (26-5). Jennings and Birt return to the NCAAs after both finishing 7th last year.

Williams isn’t your typical college wrestler. He’s 25 years old and has two sons — an 18-month-old and a 4-month-old.

“(The time off) gave me some more time with them and also it took stress off the first half of the season and I could relax and just try to get better at wrestling,” he said.

In high school at Bethalto Civic Memorial, Williams earned four state medals (three third places and a second) and each year at the NCAA Championships he has improved — from sixth as a freshman, to fourth as a sophomore, and third as a junior.

Williams wants to make his last go-round his best.

“I’ve got a lot of people counting on me and they ask me ‘are you ready to win it?’ And yes, I think I am,” Williams said. “I want to finish the best I possibly can. Whatever happens, happens and it’s going to be God’s will.”

As Williams prepares for his final collegiate matches, his thoughts have turned to his next step: Coaching.

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Even back in high school at Bethalto, Williams was an educator.

"I love coaching. I would go right from my high school practice to the kids club practice and run that. I was running practice but it was also for me because I wanted to get another two-hour workout because I was a crazy kid," Williams said. "(In the first semester) I was here probably the same amount of time I would have been but I was able to help other people. I’m here when we have freshman and sophomores here or when someone needs to keep their mind right after having a bad day and Coach Birt is busy, I’m their guy."

"(Next weekend) I’m ready to let it loose the hardest I ever have. It’s the last go. It’s kind of surreal. I wish I could go back and do it all over again."

Jennings' growth as a wrestler mirrors the growth of Millikin's program, which was reinstated as a sport for the 2015-16 academic year. 

"From my point of view I came in not knowing much and (the team) has grown and we have grown up and we wanted better things," Jennings said. "I’ve tuned up some more things this season. It has been mental (improvement) more than physical for me — calming things down."

Millikin coach Ryan Birt has pushed Jennings to move from athlete to wrestler. 

"When Keajion got here he was an athletic kid who put on a singlet and wrestled," Ryan Birt said. "In this sport it is about leverage, position, body awareness and technique and when Keajion made that transformation he became a whole new person."

Braden Birt, Ryan Birt's son, has also developed tremendously from his appearance at the NCAA tournament as a true freshman.

"He was somewhat of an unknown as a freshman and he was able to sneak up on people, but there isn’t a wrestler in the country that will let him sneak up on them now," Ryan Birt said. "They are game planning for him now but from (Braden's) mentality and strategy he is light years ahead of where he was last year."

An improved maturity helped Braden when he was injured during his semifinal match at the NCAA Lower Midwest Regional last weekend and came back and qualified for nationals.  

"In the semis my foot was injured and (that match) didn’t turn out well," Braden said. "(In the third-place match) I wasn’t moving and I wasn't like my normal self on my feet. It was pretty hard and it hurt, but I was capable of coming back and winning.

"I think I’m 100 times better. Overall wrestling IQ, just understanding the sports. I’ve grown tremendously."

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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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