Chase Hayes had won all of his matches this season, with a 30-0 record going into his Charlotte Catholic team's Cougar Invitational Wrestling tournament last weekend.
But after starting the season undefeated and winning 80 of his last 85 matches, Hayes, 17, is focused on the last time he lost.
That loss, a heartbreaking one-point loss to Concord High's Nathaniel Torrance in the 3A state championship match last season, is something that he thinks about almost every day.
"There is not a week or really a day of wrestling that I don't think about that moment," Hayes said. "But that loss is what motivates me. My goal is to be the state champion. Every match that leads up to that moment is just preparation."
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Hayes, who began wrestling in the fourth-grade, didn't like the sport when he started.
With the help of his father, Chason, who was a standout wrestler at Ransom High in Miami, Chase learned the technique and work ethic required to get better and also learned to love the sport.
By his freshman year at Charlotte Catholic, Hayes was a standout, winning the ME-GA 7 conference title at 152 pounds before getting hurt in regionals with what is known in wrestling as "cauliflower ear," when the cartilage in your ear is torn and swells up and hardens. That injury forced Hayes to drop out of the 3A Western Regional meet and ruined his chances at making it to the state meet that year.
While his injury slowed him a bit, Hayes came back stronger than ever last year as a sophomore, going 49-5 overall, winning the 3A Western Regional title at 145 pounds before coming up short in the state title match.
That disappointment turned into hard work as Hayes and his father, who is also his coach, and his younger brother, Spencer, a sophomore wrestler at Catholic, worked out regularly year-round.
Hayes' only time off is in the summer when he takes a month or so to do a heavy weight lifting regimen.
"The biggest and best thing about Chase is his self-motivation and work ethic," said Charlotte Catholic assistant wrestling coach Jim Avola, who wrestled at Davidson College. "You don't see that kind of commitment from many kids his age. One example is when we take water breaks in practice, he always wants to work on technique. He is very focused."
That focus is what will fuel Hayes this season in his quest for state championship in his junior season. Hayes, who has 25 pins in 30 matches (as of Jan. 6), has already won two tournaments this season, including the 145-pound titles in both the Jim Hayes and Mecklenburg County Invitationals.
Hayes is currently ranked No. 2 in his 145-pound weight class, behind Orange High senior Zach Rimmer. Hayes lists some of his toughest competition as Independence's Casey Belville and A.L. Brown's Patrice Donatien, but he tries not to focus on individual opponents.
"I go out and try to experience each match individually," Hayes said. "I don't focus on who I am wrestling because sometimes you can psych yourself out thinking about what he will do. It's all about what I do."
Now he begins the stretch run over the next month and a half of trying to become a three-time ME-GA 7 conference champion, a repeat 3A Western Regional champion and then a state champion.
Hayes takes an intellectual, cerebral approach to each opponent and match.
"To me wrestling is an art, not a sport of domination," Hayes said. "I'm always thinking about technique, not my feelings. I try to keep emotion out of it because when you get angry I think that can take away from your overall focus on your wrestling."
Hayes hopes his focus will lead to a state championship this year and next and also a strong finish at Nationals in Fargo, N.D., and a possible college wrestling scholarship.
Hayes is just beginning the recruiting process but does have some interest in Appalachian State and UNC Chapel Hill.
"I think Chase has everything you need to be a successful college wrestler," Avola said. "If he continues to work hard and improve, his potential is really unlimited at this point and in the future."