Columbus North wrestler Keandre Watson had zero wrestling experience a little more than 18 months ago.

Now, the 126-pound sophomore is set to compete in his second consecutive Evansville Reitz Semistate. Competition begins at 10 a.m. EST on Saturday at the Ford Center.

Watson lost 7-1 at 113 pounds in the first round of last year’s semistate. He and North coach Justin Cooper believe a lot of that had to do with Watson’s nerves, considering the fact that he pinned the same opponent a few months later during a summer tournament.

“Walking in there, I was just like, ‘Wow,’ because it was just such a big space and so many people,” Watson said of his first semistate experience. “It got butterflies in my stomach pretty bad. I think it had a big influence on how I did in my match.”

Watson said he struggled on the mat at the beginning of last season and did not expect to be in the position he’s in now. Gaining enough confidence to take a shot with authority was one of the main issues for Watson early on.

He is a lot more comfortable with taking shots this year after he worked hard in the offseason to boost his confidence. Watson trained at the University of Indianapolis last summer to help him improve alongside teammate Morgan Smith, who also qualified for semistate at 106 pounds. Other North qualifiers are No. 14-ranked Brigham Kleinhenz at 182 and Bradley Gutierez, who made it at 220.

“A lot kids, when they take a shot, it’s sloppy because they’re half scared to actually commit to it,” Watson said. “They’re scared, so they’re just going to get reversed or something, and that just brings your confidence down.”

Cooper said the 126-pound weight class is arguably one of the toughest classes in the state, and he is pleased with the way Watson has handled the challenge. His class holds three former state champions — No. 2-ranked Cayden Rooks of Columbus East and No. 1 Asa Garcia of Avon, who both will be in the Evansville Semistate. Brownsburg’s No. 6 Ty Mills, who is a former state runner-up and third-place state finisher, also will be there.

Watson finished second to Rooks in the sectional and regional. He needs to win his first two matches to qualify for state, and Cooper said he believes he has a good chance at doing so by looking at the postseason run he has had thus far. Watson also is a lot more relaxed and comfortable the second time around.

“I feel like it’s going to be another mat, another wrestler and hopefully, I’ll do good against him,” Watson said. “… My goal this year is at least make it past (the first round), and I’m really hoping I can make it past that second round to state.”

If you go

What: Evansville Reitz Semisate

Day: Saturday

Time: 10 a.m.

Where: Ford Center 1 SE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Evansville, IN 47708

North Qualifiers: Morgan Smith (106); Keandre Watson (126); Brigham Kleinhenz (182); Bradley Guttierez (220).

Author photo
Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.