Forgive Colin Merkley if he has a big chip on his shoulder, even if that chip happens to be his knee.
“I felt jipped last year blowing out my knee in the qualifying round, so I was a little mad and disrespected,” Merkley said. “I wanted to win it.”
After missing out on last year’s national wrestling tournament because of a knee injury in the qualifying round, the 2009 Fallon grad returned to the mat stronger than ever this season. Merkley, a 149-pound junior from Embry-Riddle (Prescott, Ariz.), finished second in his weight class at the NAIA West Regional Tournament last month. Merkley will strive for a top-eight finish and All-American honors this weekend at the 57th annual Wrestling National Championship at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, Kan.
“Not having Colin last year at nationals was very disappointing to say the least. And I know he was disappointed as well,” Embry-Riddle coach K.C. Rock said. “That disappointment was the fuel that kept his fire going through out this season.”
Merkley, who has not been pinned this season, won his first two matches at the regional two weeks ago before dropping a close decision in the championship. A state champ during his senior year in Fallon, Merkley pinned Great Falls’ Chase Burns in the second period of the quarterfinal before taking down Southern Oregon’s Tyler Cowger at the six-minute mark of the match. Great Falls’ Ryan Martin came from behind to edge Merkley, 6-4, for the title.
“I had a strong lead and strong beginning of my match but I stopped wrestling for some reason and gave it away,” Merkley said of his last bout. “I’ve been thinking about it the past two weeks and it won’t happen again this weekend.”
Getting the invite to the national tournament is not the ultimate goal for Merkley. In his eyes, he still has work to do and will not be satisfied until he medals and becomes an All-American.
“It feels good to have this opportunity to get the All-American. It’s all I think about,” Merkley said. “It’s definitely what it all comes down to and the only payoff to all the work you put in all year. I’m trying to do it for everyone that’s coached me and supported me my whole life. My family, my friends and my coaches — Mitch Overlie and Wade Workman. This one is for me and for them as well. I want to do it for them.”
Merkley turned in the best season at Embry-Riddle as he enters this weekend with a 19-9 record (7-4 West Region), which is No. 1 on the team, and has won five of his last seven matches since last month. In his 19 wins, 11 have come from pinfall while one came from a major decision.
“He has had a good year. The only thing missing from a great year is All-American honors,” Rock said.“He worked hard this offseason to make sure he came back in better shape and ready to go and past the injuries. I am very excited to see him wrestle here and see what he can do Friday and Saturday”
The former multi-sport Greenwave star attributes his conditioning in the offseason and strict diet for getting back on the mat this season.
“Weight cut is always an obstacle but you take that week by week, and staying on a strict diet helps you focus more on winning matches every weekend instead of making weight,” Merkley said. “This offseason, I just lifted and ran but rested my knees as much as I could, just so they could make it through the season for once. Taking care of your body all year, in season and offseason, is the most important thing if you’re serious about being successful at the collegiate level in any sport.”
Having family support through the bad times and now the good has been more than appreciative for Merkley. And it doesn’t hurt knowing that his friends and former coaches are rallying behind him although he’s moved on to wrestling in Arizona.
“They (family) keep me grounded and help more than they know,” Merkley said. “It means a lot to get congratulated by (my friends) and they keep me focused on going all year. My coaches (Overlie and Workman) pushed me when I was young. They gave me the ability and support when I was young to get where I am now. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
But what is going to take to finish the season as one of the best NAIA wrestlers in the country?
Concentration. Domination. Confidence.
“Take it one match at a time and just wrestle tough and brutal and nonstop every second of the match,” Merkley said. “There’s nothing that can stop me from making the nationals finals match if I keep my mind right and wrestle smart and tough the whole time.”