It’s a Friday afternoon after school and 13 days since Mason Phillips fulfilled a lifelong dream by winning the WIAA Division 1 wrestling state championship at 138 pounds.
The Eau Claire North senior had just gotten back from a four-day DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) competition in Lake Geneva.
He walked over in a maroon pullover and took his headphones out with a smile that probably hasn’t left his face since his triumph in Madison.
His first stop was the Huskies wall of champions, where his state title plaque was in its first hours on display.
“Pretty cool,” he said while keeping that ear-to-ear smile.
Then, he settled into a window-less physical education classroom. The door closed.
In a reflection of his career, he thought back to his first youth state tournament when he was 7 years old.
He won the biggest match of his life up to that point at the regional meet to qualify. It was against Matthew Peterson from Ellsworth, and he erased a three-point deficit in the final 19 seconds to win, fist pumping a la Tiger Woods at the match’s conclusion.
But it’s his first youth state experience that sticks out. In the semifinals, he lost a 9-2 bout to Adam Taylor. Eleven years later, he remembered it as if it were yesterday.
“I remember a lot of names,” Phillips said. “I remember every kid I’ve ever wrestled. For some reason with sports, I remember everything vividly. It’s how my brain works.”
For the next 40 minutes, he proceeded to run down every kid he wrestled at a youth state or national tournament and remembered the score of just about all of them. Not only that, but he broke down every move that made the match turn out the way it did.
You have to have a burning passion to be able to recall everything the way he did.
That’s a champion’s mindset. And in his final match representing North, Phillips cashed in and won the school’s first wrestling state title.
“I can sit and talk for hours and hours about this, but it’s been a long ride and it’s crazy,” Phillips said.
He’s allowed himself time to be reflective. Because his entire life, those hours have often been spent by himself at 5 a.m. cranking up the resistance on a stationary bike and peddling himself to exhaustion. Or during a second practice late at night wrestling a college-aged kid at the Weigh In Club, run by Jordan Crass.
He’s Mason Phillips, the wrestler. Always has been.
Now, he’ll forever have another label. Mason Phillips, state champion.
Oh, and one more. He’s the Leader-Telegram’s 2017-18 All-Area wrestler of the year.
■ ■ ■
Since he was little, no matter what was going on in his life, the circle on the mat represented escape for Phillips. And it was something he and his father shared.
“If anything bad happened, it didn’t matter because Saturdays and Sundays we had tournaments,” Phillips said. “Wrestling was a sanctuary throughout my whole life to clear my head.”
He recalled one such youth nationals tournament in which he made it all the way to the finals and matched up with Stratford’s AJ Schoenfuss, who just missed out on being a four-time WIAA state champion when he lost by ultimate tiebreaker in the title match as a senior.
Phillips controlled the match and realized right then and there nobody could beat him on his feet. He took that all the way to his state championship match as a senior in high school.
After beating Schoenfuss 7-0 — again, he can rattle that score off like it’s nothing — Phillips jumped into his dad’s arms and dreamed of doing so at the Kohl Center once he became a Husky.
That opportunity had to wait. Phillips, who lost four times in the championship matches at the youth state tournament, had to put those experiences to use once he got older.
His state trips in high school are well-documented. He lost in the winner’s bracket for three straight years by a combined four points, losing back-to-back 1-0 decisions in the state quarterfinals as a sophomore and junior.
Phillips embraced the noise. People coming up to him asking if he couldn’t wait to get back out there, what the prospects were of him winning the next year and so on and so forth.
People around the community thought he might be the one to break the school’s state championship drought (his grandpa Dave came really close, finishing second in 1968 as a Husky).
That was just fine with him. Because as he said many times in that phy ed room on a spring-like Friday afternoon, nothing mattered once the whistle blew.
“Because of what I went through as a kid, the only pressure I put on myself is that I have to wrestle at this intensity and this level because that’s how I train,” Phillips said. “Other than that, I’d just go out there and have fun wrestling.”
An avid weight room attendee, Phillips boosted his weight up to 138 pounds by the time his senior year rolled around. Quite a difference from the 106-pounder who took the mat as a freshman. He wrestled at 113 as a sophomore and 126 his junior year.
He didn’t do it to avoid certain wrestlers or guys who beat him the year before. He did it because he thought getting stronger in the upper body as well as generating more explosiveness in the legs would be how he’d better himself.
“Some kids aren’t sure, because they aren’t sure if going up in weight meant they had to adapt to a different style of wrestling,” Phillips said. “Well, I always just made it the motto of mine that I was going to make everyone wrestle my style no matter where I was at.”
On Championship Saturday, that’s exactly what he did when he dared Slinger’s Caleb Ziebell to come back to the middle of the mat with 90 seconds to go. Phillips, facing a 3-2 deficit, remembered what he discovered wrestling Schoenfuss at nationals nearly a decade earlier. Nobody could beat him on his feet.
And with both wrestlers standing up and time ticking down, Phillips exploded for a late take-down and nearfall to complete his title. He then climbed the railing and jumped into his father’s arms, just like he always envisioned.
■ ■ ■
Time’s wrapping up, and Phillips has a rare Friday night to himself. He wasn’t sure yet if he’d lay low and relax or hang out with some friends.
He talked about someday wanting to work in marketing for his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. And how Walter Payton is forever his idol and that most of his user names had the number 35 incorporated. Yes, Payton wore No. 34 for the Chicago Bears. But Phillips’ mindset has always been to do one more. So naturally, 35.
The sun is setting. But just before he headed out to his car, he stopped to ponder why he is the way he is. Why does he get up at hours nobody else is awake to sprint up a bike trail or work out on the stair climber until exhaustion? Why does he calculate his diet so much so that it’s considered splurging when he allows himself to put a little bit of butter on a piece of bread?
It’s one of the few times Mason Phillips has ever been speechless.
Then it comes to him.
“I always did what I did because I had a lot of people who cared about me and who some way or another supported how passionate I was about what I do, which is wrestling,” Phillips said. “I got up every morning, and if everything was ever hard for me or it was a struggle, I just knew that I was doing what I was doing because I loved it and people knew I loved it. If I were to do anything besides giving my all every single day, not only would I let myself down but all those people around me down.”