TOWNSEND – For many wrestlers, competition begins at an early age. Moms and dads drive their children across the state, perhaps across the northwest, for tournaments with competitors ranging from age five or six to the high school ages.

With the majority of grapplers learning technique and terms at such a young age, it’s rare to see success follow those who get a late start to the sport. But Townsend senior Derek Neel is no ordinary young man.

“Derek Neel is one of those kids that every coach wants in their room,” said Townsend coach John O’Dell. “He’s the first to get here and last to leave, he has unbelievable work ethic, a 4.0 GPA student and probably one of the nicest kids in our high school. He’s a great ambassador for our sport.”

Townsend senior Derek Neel (bottom) works a pin in the practice room. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

Neel’s work ethic has been contagious in the Bulldogs’ wrestling room as teammates try to match his intensity and dedication. But when it came to specific technical aspects of the sport, O’Dell admits there were challenges.

Story continues below

“Honestly, he’s one of those kids that it’s not easy for him,” said O’Dell. “He’s not gifted or the most athletic kid but he believes in everything you say and works as hard as he can. He’s turned himself into an absolutely physical beast and he’s a great football player. … We’re hoping to get him on the podium at state and he’s worked hard enough to get it.”

“It was a little bit challenging to start with,” said Neel, who missed most his freshman season with a broken leg from football, “but a lot of the guys I started with were also in their first year as freshmen too. The guys who knew a lot more helped us get caught up and the coaches do a good job watching us wrestle live matches and picking out the things we do naturally well and helping us build on those while teaching you the things you don’t know.”

Neel has been a sponge on the mats, soaking up every piece of knowledge and information tossed his way. What he’s lacked in experience, he has certainly made up for with his commitment.

“All the time. This and in football I give all the effort I have,” he said. “I definitely see improvements in my shots, that’s one of the biggest things we drill is shots. Warming up before a tournament we do three levels of takedowns. That’s one of the biggest parts. My coaches and my dad have told me if you can take someone down you can beat them in a match.”

Derek Neel (left) finished runner-up at the divisional tournament this past weekend (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

Neel has earned his fair share of wins over the past two seasons. As a junior, he finished third in the division and won a couple of matches at the state tournament. Last weekend he captured runner-up honors in the division’s 160-pound class

“State is a lot different than anything else, you have to be able to shut out the noise. There are a lot of people there cheering. State matches tend to be more slow-paced than divisional matches because these are people we wrestle all the time down here, matches go pretty quick, if you’re going to pin someone you do it in the first period and most matches don’t go to the third period. State is a lot different because you have to slow your pace down and be patient and think through all the moves.

“I think I have to work on my patience and stamina in matches. Starting my freshman year, I don’t have a lot of talent or skill built up yet so it’s pretty much about outlasting the competition.”

O’Dell knows he will miss Neel on the practice mats, as well as at competitions next season. The long-time coach calls the senior, “One of the best drillers I have ever coached,” and says he drills at a college level.

Townsend coach John O’Dell praises Derek Neel for his work the past four seasons. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

Now, with only two days remaining in their time together, O’Dell has only one piece of advice to the athlete who has led his practices for the past few years.

“The same thing that has got him to this point,” O’Dell said. “He’s going to work hard, lead the team and I think he’s one of my son’s idols and will impact wrestling in Townsend for a long time with what he’s done.”