DECATUR — The MacArthur wrestling team played Santa Claus for coach Alvin Jackson at the Clinton Holiday Tournament before the Christmas holiday break.
Jackson told his team before the meet began that he would have been happy with a fifth-place finish in the 12-team tournament.
"I asked them and said it would be respectable if we could finish in the top five today. We would be really close to getting a team trophy and I would be happy if with a break here or there we could get a trophy," Jackson said.
But the Generals would have none of it and turned in a tournament-winning performance that included two championships and three second-place finishes.
"I was absolutely surprised. I did feel like with our numbers that we could be competitive. (A trophy) was my Christmas wish from them and they gave me a bigger present," Jackson said.
The wrestling room at MacArthur is a lot more crowded than it typically is this time of year. Jackson's roster boasts more than 22 wrestlers, which is eight to 10 more than are typically still with the team this late into the season. The numbers were key to the Generals' success, as they can fill 13 of the 14 weight classes.
"The key to our victory was not only leadership but participation. Just having the numbers, that's what gave us the tournament," Jackson said. "If we had been missing any kid at any weight class on that day, it could have made the difference and we took advantage of it."
Senior Billy Tucker and junior Cameron Lee won championships at 145 and 113 pounds, respectively, at Clinton, and are the Generals' leading contenders to qualify for the Class 2A state tournament this season. Lee went to state last season at 106 pounds and Tucker, a team captain, is poised to make the most of his senior season and join Lee at the State Farm Center in Champaign in February.
The leadership Tucker brings to the team is more than demonstrating strong techniques or cheering on his counterparts. At a recent practice, he noticed a teammate wasn't there and so Tucker went straight to Jackson.
"This morning he came in and saw that a kid wasn't here and he said 'Coach, is it OK if I go get this kid?' So he got in his car and went and chased him down and brought him down,” Jackson said. “If your leader is willing to do that, you can't ask for much more."
Tucker has been growing into the Generals’ leader in the wrestling room over his four years.
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“Billy's leadership has come a long way. I could tell from the beginning that he was going to be a leader if he stuck with it,” Jackson said. “Every year we talk about what it takes in the off season to be better and be a leader and he has shown tremendous growth in that area.”
Tucker is in “wrestling mode” all year long and attends summer camps to improve his techniques with goals of making state and wrestling in college. Much of Tucker's focus is working on the mental aspects of his game.
"Just staying mentally positive and knowing I can go out there and finish anyone," he said. "I'm aggressive but I used to be even more aggressive. I try to conserve a lot of energy and be smart in a match. I have to strategize and not go out and waste all my energy in the first period."
Lee began the season competing at 120 pounds and was down to 113 at the Clinton tournament. That’s where he plans to stay as the wrestling postseason approaches at the Class 2A Mattoon Regional on Saturday, Feb. 8.
“(Cam) has been working really hard and he played football and he came straight to wrestling. He grinds through and sometimes I have to tell him to take a break,” Jackson said. “He's so strong for a kid his size that when he drops that weight the guys just get littler and littler to him because his strength stays the same.”
Lee and Tucker has been wrestling together since Lee was in middle school when Tucker would come and help train the young wrestlers. While Lee leads with his mat work, Tucker is the vocal leader.
“I try to be a leader but I don't like to talk too much. (Billy) motivates us a lot, with both his wrestling and his words. I think he has a good shot at making state this year,” Lee said.
The three Generals finishing second at Clinton were freshman Shaundell Watson (106 pounds), senior Ricky Dorsey (138 pounds) and freshman Ricardo Hibard (152 pounds) and if things fall right they could advance in the playoffs. Tucker will have them ready for the challenge.
"I'm happy to go out with them in my senior year with people who are willing to work hard and stay with it. I'm watching out for everyone and making sure everyone is staying on task. It's some responsibility and it teaches me to be a better person. I've got to set the example and work hard here and outside the wrestling room," he said.
Tucker said the lessons he's been taught in wrestling go past the mat.
“Wrestling is like a lifestyle. What you learn in the wrestling room and wrestling as a sport all together, it doesn't just teach you about the sport, it teaches you about life,” Tucker said. “It teaches responsibilities and how to take care of yourself. It can follow you through your entire life.”
Matt Flaten's most memorable stories from 2019
Here are some of my favorite stories in 2019, including some columns about trading card collecting, a look at the history of MacArthur and Mount Zion football games, a feature on Millikin receiver Jordan Smith and St. Teresa volleyball's state championship.
Everything I know about baseball, I’ve learned from baseball cards.
There are millions of people out there who have collected trading cards, but you can break them down into two types — those who sell cards and…
DECATUR — Jon Kidd remembered the game immediately.
No matter what you call him, opposing teams will have former Shelbyville wide receiver Smith zeroed in on as the the Big Blue's biggest weapon.
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten