Striving to be the best

news_20101213-231954-pic-89166425 | © Juan Carlo/VC Star
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© Juan Carlo/VC Star
Camarillo High senior Matt Hickman spent his summer at wrestling camps and competitions and hopes it pays off with a state championship at his new weight of 152 pounds. © Juan Carlo/VC Star
Matt Hickman had met his match. OK, more than met his match.

The defending CIF-Southern Section and Masters wrestling champion was being twisted, turned and handled like some novice kid taking on Hulk Hogan on this summer day.

Of course, Hickman not only expected this, he savored the opportunity.

The lessons were being administered by seasoned collegians from the powerhouse University of Nebraska, and the Camarillo High senior treated it like Christmas Day.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “I learned so much from those guys. Believe me, there was no way I was going to beat those guys. But they were cool. They helped me become a better wrestler.”

What became a memorable and eventful summer for the athlete likely to be Ventura County’s top-rated wrestler this high school season, included some humbling moments at the high-profile Nebraska wrestling camp in July.

It also featured some notable summit-climbing.

At the prestigious USA Wrestling Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D., Hickman was one of the tournament’s biggest surprises when he placed second at 152 pounds in a star-studded field.

It was the best performance ever for a county athlete, and featured victories in the playoff rounds over three of the top high school wrestlers in the United States. Hickman ended up 7-2 in North Dakota, including dropping a 3-1, 6-0 decision to the nation’s top-ranked senior — Destin McCauley of Apple Valley, Minn. — in the championship match.

“It was a good feeling,” Hickman said during a break last week in the Camarillo High wrestling room. “I think a lot of people thought I would be destroyed in some of those matches. I held my own. I learned a lot going up against some of the best wrestlers in the country.”

Then, with a grin: “Maybe I would do a lot better if I met him (McCauley) again. I know I would like the chance.”

The showing elevated Hickman among the nation’s top wrestlers. He is ranked No. 44 by Matfish.com, and No. 7 by Theopenmat.com.

Already a fixture among the top wrestlers in the CIF-SS and, indeed, the state, Hickman could be headed to the pinnacle in 2011. He won championships at 145 pounds a year ago in the CIF-Southern Section and Masters meets, then placed sixth in the state championships.

The sixth-place finish in Bakersfield last March still rankles him and provides motivation for his senior campaign. He reached the semifinals, and was exactly one second from advancing to the championship match.

In the third overtime against Cody Rodebaugh of San Lorenzo Valley, Hickman took a 4-3 lead with an escape in the waning moments. But Rodenbaugh engineered a takedown with one second remaining for the stunning, 5-4 victory.

It was the first takedown Hickman had suffered in the state meet, and ended his streak of 13 consecutive postseason victories.

“I still have nightmares about that loss,” he said. “I relaxed for just a second, and he used that to score the takedown. I was one second from reaching the finals. I learned a lot. I learned never to let my guard down again.”

Hickman lost in the fifth-place match, in double overtime, to Victor Pereira of Newark Memorial.

“I hadn’t gotten over that first loss yet,” he said. “I wasn’t the same.”

Hickman seems poised to vie for a state championship this season in his new weight class, 152 pounds. It appears to be a logical progression.

But the down-to-earth senior takes nothing for granted. He says he starts over as a senior in his quest for a state crown.

“You can’t have any expectations in this sport,” he said. “It’s all about hard work and being prepared, every match. If you can’t do that, you’re going to lose.”

Still, Hickman seems positioned to excel.

“He can do whatever he wants to do,” said Camarillo coach Ron Wilson. “He’s a great athlete and also a great kid. He always works hard, and he’s always trying to get better.”

There’s little doubt that the nationals in Fargo could be a springboard.

Josh Lowe of Intermatwrestle.com was among the impressed.

“Instead of being a ‘dime-a-dozen’ type of prospect, with three quality wins, his name hit the tip of major college wrestling coaches’ tongues,” Lowe wrote.

Hickman’s wins included an overtime victory against Massa Taylor of St. John’s, Mich., the nation’s top wrestlers in the Class of 2012 and University of Wyoming-bound Andy McCulley.

Hickman was thrilled with the success. But truth be told, Hickman is thrilled anytime he’s on the mat.

“Wrestling is all I do,” he said. “That’s was pretty much how I spent my summer. It was wrestling camp and wrestling competitions. That’s what I love to do.”

At the end of this season, there is one more triumph that Hickman hopes to savor.

His quest is for a collegiate athletic scholarship, and his dream destination is Nebraska.

“If they offer, I’d take it in a heartbeat,” he said. “I just liked everything about Lincoln (Neb.) and the school. I like the city, I like the coaches and the players. I like the school.”

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