Four years after taking the mats for the first time, J.J. Filipek has reached the pinnacle of his sport.
He will forever reign as the first state champion wrestler in Warrenton history, after winning the Class 3 title on Saturday.
In the program’s 16-year existence, none had come before him.
“It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Filipek, who spent the entire season atop the 182-pound rankings.
“All the hard work I’ve invested has paid off.”
Filipek’s dominant performance during last weekend’s MSHSAA Championships proved what his coaches had speculated — that he is indeed a level above all other competition in his respective weight class.
“I didn’t have any doubt he was the best guy in his bracket,” said Coach Kevin Fowler. “As long as he wrestled to his potential, I knew we’d be just fine.”
Filipek’s accomplishments extend beyond the top tier of the medal podium, where he stood proudly, moments after achieving a dream that had been about four years in the making.
He etched his mark in both the school and state record books along the way.
The second oldest of three brothers, J.J. began wrestling as a freshman, struck with intrigue after watching his eldest sibling, Will, compete at state. But it wasn’t until his sophomore year, also his first full season on the varsity team, that he began to take the endeavor seriously.
“That year I was one round away from medaling at state,” said Filipek. “I was improving a lot, and it made me consider not playing football to focus more on wrestling year around.”
Filipek began wrestling on the competitive circuit during the offseason in 2011, and his vision of becoming a state champion started to take form. After falling shy of the awards stand as a sophomore, he returned to take third his junior year.
Fowler says it was Filipek’s success prior to his senior campaign that catapulted him into an elite field. Traveling to North Dakota for the Fargo Nationals, the premier event among young wrestlers, Filipek fell one win short of earning All-American status.
“If you can go to Fargo and win a couple of matches, it kind of sets you apart from everybody else,” acknowledged Fowler.
Champion in the Making
Two Warrenton wrestlers have reached the title match in the past, most recently in 2007. Each fell short of glory.
Others have gone the entire regular season without losing, only to have their goals disrupted at state.
“It takes someone special to actually get over that hump,” said Fowler.
So what sets Filipek apart? How did he finally accomplish a feat that has evaded hundreds of Warrenton grapplers?
First and foremost, hard work, but that’s the base of every decorated athlete’s success.
“The main difference was his mental approach and confidence,” added Fowler. “He knew he was the best wrestler in Class 3.”
For Filipek, coaching and timely losses were also key.
He says dropping a pair of matches midway through the regular season was disappointing but served a beneficial role in the long term. Defeat humbled Filipek, exposing his few vulnerabilities and allowing time to mend them.
“Going undefeated would be great, but I’ll take winning the title over a perfect regular season,” said Filipek. “The quality of my matches during the regular season really helped prepare me for this level.”
The setbacks didn’t shake his confidence either. Aware that he had lost to the state’s Class 4 defending champion and another from Tennessee, Filipek remained certain he was the best in his class.
He also exhibited confidence in his coaches, who provided preparation both mentally and physically. It was a perfect mix, acknowledges the champ.
Fowler has taken wrestlers to state every year during his five seasons leading the program.
More importantly in Filipek’s eyes, his coach had also won a state title while wrestling for Hannibal High School. Fowler knew the challenges that came with competing in a title match — the nerve-wracking wait, raw emotions and overwhelming lights and sounds of the raucous arena.
“I look up to Coach Fowler, knowing he was a state champion his senior year,” said Filipek.
Assistant coach Clayton Olsson served as an invaluable practice partner for Filipek all season. He too had wrestled at state, medaling on three occasions. With (Clayton) Olsson and Fowler sitting ringside, Filipek felt equipped for victory.
“Training with Coach Olsson has gotten me to where I want to be,” said Filipek.
History in the Making
Two other Warrenton graduates have matched Filipek’s unique accomplishment.
Eric Kessler has the exclusive honor of being the school’s only two-time champion, claiming the shot put title in 1995 and 1996. Dale London won the title in both the hurdles and discus in 1949.
“I won a state title to show that it’s not impossible,” said Filipek. “It’s within anyone’s reach if they are willing to work for it.”
Filipek achieved a laundry list of smaller goals along the way.
He earned his coveted 50th win by pinning Dustin Politte during the title match on Saturday. He surpassed three alum, who had each 45 victories in a single season.
Kellen Dreyer was the last Warrenton grappler to wrestle for the title. He was responsible for 251 team points during his senior season. Filipek topped that with 259.
Fowler says one of his most telling feats is landing a school-record 35 pins, one of which set a new state mark. By dispatching Jesse Pinkner of Webster Groves in just 27 seconds during the first-round last Thursday, he claims ownership of the fastest pin for an 182-pound competitor in championship history.
He also had 55 nearfalls.
“The whole weekend was strictly business, no joking around,” asserted Filipek. “I wanted to get the job done.”