To this day, I don't know if I have ever seen a wrestler with that level of pure destruction. For years I secretively dreamed of him as my enemy and I always beat him in my imagination. Later, I found out he had two brothers just as mean, and the legend of the Jean family is still being told.
Jake Short (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)There have been quite a few famous wrestling families in Minnesota. Every state that has this freak sport has these types of legendary names. In addition to the Jeans, Minnesota has had some nationally recognized names like Eustice, Kelliher, Sanders, Ness, Friederichs, Kraft, Thorn, Morgan, among others. But there may not be a more prominent name in Minnesota wrestling history than Short. During the 90s, John, Chris, Will and Wade Short combined to win seven state wrestling championships while competing for their dad Jim. Simley has been a force on the national scene for several decades mostly due to the coaching influence of Jim and now co-head coach Will Short. I asked Will's son Jake if I could follow his progress through Fargo and thought the story would evolve mostly about the family legend. It didn't turn out that way. I didn't get a chance to meet any of Jake's uncles, but his grandma Pat was a great substitute.
I meet Jake outside the Bison Center the day before the Junior freestyle tournament was to begin. He has a nice smile and is just about like any other teenager. He has a girlfriend, plays video games, and has a pretty normal life. Except, he's one of the very top high school wrestlers in the United States. He recently won his third state title and will own every wrestling record in his high school if he stays healthy.
He says he's probably four pounds over right now, but no worry. He's an easy weight-cutter and has taken off more than that in a day. He's all business and ready to go. I will meet him in the morning
I run into grandma Pat Short completely by accident. I boasted about my state tournament run (30 years) and she quickly told me she has me beat by 20 years. On top of that, she's been coming to Junior Nationals since 1974. Everyone knows Pat Short. She has worked the Olympic Games as a pairer. She thinks parents are too soft today. She smiles when she mentions how her son Chris came home from kindergarten and repeated a swear word picked up from the school bus. She made him do 100 pushups. The kid was 5. Later when these four boys went to high school, following any loss, they had to get out of the car and run the last few miles home. All of them are accomplished dancers since mom owned a dance studio.
Day 1: Thursday
There's really nothing more exciting than the opening whistle in Fargo. Most wrestlers here truly know deep in their hearts, they aren't going to win this thing. There are 1,048 Junior wrestlers in the freestyle portion. There will be only 15 champions. The odds are not good. At 145 pounds there are 100 wrestlers entered, and if there is only one word I can use to describe the competition, it would be filthy, maybe sick, or even insane.
Jake Short happens to be in the lower part of the bracket which seems to carry most of the depth. They are filled with names like Brian Murphy, Dylan Milonas, Grant LaMont, Clayton Ream, and Gabe Moreno, and then add Jake Short. Only one of these stars will make it to the finals and some will not even be good enough to be earn All-American honors. The top side of the bracket has a couple of well-known names like Brandon Sorenson, Jack Bass and Matt Cimato. But here's what's crazy ... There will likely be some new names breaking onto the scene and making a name for themselves. It always happens. It's what makes that opening whistle so damn exciting.
I meet Jake before his first match. He is much friendlier than I expected. So is his dad Will, which surprised me more. They both have a determined look on their faces most of the time which can be misconstrued as aloof and distant. It's not true. Will says he is much more comfortable coaching Jake today as opposed to his younger years. He claims he has taken Jake as far as he can and now wants other coaches to take over. Will has coached Jake and his daughter in tennis and is the current athletic director at Simley High School where Jake attends. Simley has four state champions in the Junior freestyle competition. At 120 pounds it starts with Kyle Gliva, then Jake Short at 145 pounds, followed by Nick Wanzek at 160 pounds, and Micah Barnes at 170 pounds. When the dust settles on Saturday, three of the Simley wrestlers will be All Americans and two will be in the finals.
Jake is all business as he warms up. His opponent is Nick Stager from Colorado. He is unknown to Jake and they won't know each other long. I notice something that I will see before every match. Will Short wraps his powerful arms around his son's chest and lifts him off the mat about a foot as the loud crack of Jake's back can be heard. Jake refers to this as his one good luck charm. Short explodes to a crazy quick tech fall 7-0 in under a minute of the first period. I look away for a second while the second period gets going. It's over soon. Short gets an easy pin. Later I find out this is Jake's first live match since FloNationals back in April. He has a sour taste about that match. He lost to Matt Cimato (mentioned above) due to riding time. Jake said he went through the entire FloNationals tournament without giving up a takedown. "I lost because I was not used to riding time."
Jake Short dominated Maryland's Max Smith on Thursday (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)This opponent is Max Smith from Maryland and again he is unknown to the Shorts. This is another laugher as Short techs him in two periods, 6-0, 6-0. Jake makes this match look ridiculously easy but still manages to break a good sweat. The four pounds he lost since yesterday continue to drip off his chin and shoulders. Jake has constant movement in his matches and even though they are ending early, he manages to come off the mat looking like he's leaving a steaming sauna. I ask him about losing and how it affects him. He immediately brings up the loss to Jason Tsirtsis in last year's final in Fargo. "I did something that day I can't remember ever doing. I listened to all the nonsense people told me about how great Tsirstis was. And I stupidly believed them. I've never been that nervous. So I learned from that. That's my answer. When I lose ... I learn from it." Then he looked at me and said. "I'm not learning anything this weekend." We both smiled knowing what that meant.
Jim and Pat Short (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)The afternoon session starts after a two-hour break and we are ready to go. While waiting for the earlier matches to finish, I get plenty more time and stories from Jake's grandma Pat Short. This engaging, tell-it-like-it-is woman is a walking Wikipedia of information on the Short family. She shares with me so many interesting statistics and funny stories. She has been married to Jim for 46 years. Jim Short happens to be walking around with someone else's kidney for the last 31 years -- second longest in the U.S. He is also a cancer survivor and is recently back from surgery. He is not nearly as strong as I remember seeing him last and he walks with a severe limp. But he has an aura about him that people love. Everyone comes up to Pat and Jim and embraces them. I see why this whole family unit has had so much success.
Jake's third opponent is another unfamiliar name, John Cimmerman from Indiana. Before the match Jake is much looser than normal and he and his dad share an inside joke and crack each other up. It's the only time I have seen them both acting like kids. It's sweet to see. Unfortunately for Cimmerman, Short loses the laugh at the whistle and gets a quick takedown followed by a series of tilts and within 22 seconds of the period it's already over, 6-0. The second period is even worse for the Indiana kid. This time Jake techs him in 17 seconds, 7-0! He scored 13 points in 39 seconds. He has yet to give up a point and everything has been a laugher. Neither dad Will nor his grandpa Jim say one word while coaching this match. Jim chuckles and says, "Sometimes, there's no time to coach!" After the match I ask Jake about his motivation. What makes the fire burn so passionately? "Well, I want to win. I love wrestling and I hate losing." After a pause, he says something I didn't expect. "I love my mom and dad so much and I want to win for them. My grandparents are my biggest supporters and I want them to be proud. I guess sometimes I do this for them."
Steve Elwood talks with Jake Short prior to his match (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Jake finally gets an opponent he's familiar with. Alexander Aniciette from Nevada has tangled with Short on one occasion and extended him to three periods. Will Short reminds Jake how tough this match would be. Jake explodes to an early 4-0 lead in less than a minute. Then for reason only he knows he starts to slow down. The period lasts all the way the 1:59 mark before it's secure at 6-0. But the second half of the opening is much more grueling. Jake starts the second period in the same pattern as the first with a takedown. After Jake is unable to score in par terre, the ref has both wrestlers start neutral and Jake gives up his first point of the tournament on a takedown. Within a few seconds Jake Short is on his back and is fighting for his life. Aniciette has him squeezed, and for a moment I think it's over. Jake rocks back and forth and fights to get out of bounds. He makes it and I notice I haven't taken a breath in a long time. Jake loses the period 1-5.
Period 3 starts out with Aniciette getting a takedown right after the whistle. It's 0-1 and this is getting serious. Jake lays flat on the mat and there is a restart. Short gets a beautiful takedown that leads to a tilt and a 3-1 lead. They both go neutral and Aniciette gets another takedown to close it to 3-2. They go neutral again and Short gets pushed out and the score is tied 3-3 with 30 seconds to go. Since Aniciette scored last, I was sure Jake would need another point. In front of me, Will is screaming for Jake to stay in the center of the mat. I mumble something about the tie score and I hear a voice mention Jake's two-point throw which trumps the tie. The period finishes 3-3 and Jake Short escapes with a steal of a win.
He comes off the mat and has the look of a boy who lost his dog. I ask him what this win feels like and he says it feels rotten. "I let him control the pace and I wrestled crappy. I didn't deserve that win." Will comes over and commands his son to drink water. He has been sweating hard and the weight loss is showing. Later, Jake tells me this is the first time he was on his back since his first year as a Cadet! That was over three years ago.
It is clear by now there will be no more easy matches. The giant screens in the corner of the FARGODOME are displaying matches, and this is the time I am noticing how crazy the pairings look. I notice matches like Mike Kroells vs. Adam Coon and Sam Brancale vs. Zane Richards. These are multiple-time state champions and highly ranked recruits battling on many of the mats. And this is still the opening day of Junior freestyle competition.
Jake Short gets his hand raised after a victory in Fargo (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Jake's opponent is a very tough kid from Missouri, Michael Cuthbertson. Jake is more dialed in than I have seen him all day. His jaw is set and his eyes are steely cold. Before this match gets going, his grandma Pat Short taps me on the shoulder and tells me team Simley will be 18-0 for the day if Jakey wins. Gliva, Wanzek, Barnes and cousin Mack have run the table and most of them are nearby to see if Jake is going to keep this impressive streak alive. Jake immediately takes control of the opening period with a takedown followed by enough leg laces to get to 6-0 before the clock gets to a minute. The second period starts with Cuthbertson getting a quick takedown and it stays that way until the 1:26 mark when Jake gets a takedown to even the score at 1-1, but just as fast Jake, puts his opponent to his back and it's 4-1. Short uses the rest of the period moving away from anything serious Cuthbertson tries and it ends 4-1.
Jake does the customary handshakes and takes a rest. "I wrestled my match this time. I controlled his head and I'm not pulling that crap I pulled from my fourth match. That close match was good for me. I'm ready to roll now. If I lose now, it's not going to be from what I did or didn't do. If I lose, they will have to be better than me." He gives me the most hard and serious look of the day and says, "I'm not losing."
Day 2: Friday
Will Short (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)It's 8 a.m. and the FARGODOME is packed with Cadets and Juniors running in circles with their teammates. It's hard to locate Team Minnesota, but I finally do and get some nice conversation with Jake's dad Will Short. He talks about how much of a mistake he made in not sending the Simley kids to Junior Duals. He thought they would be much better at mat management here in Fargo and won't make that mistake again. Will is a very private man and isn't one to brag. But it's obvious to me that he loves these boys on his team. He's been coaching them since they were entering first grade. I run into Jake Short and he is all business. He is in a zone and isn't interested in small talk before this match.
His opponent is Gabe Moreno of Iowa. Here are Moreno's credentials:
It's showtime. The first period starts out unusually tight. There are plenty of shots and nice blocks. The official stops the two wrestlers a few times for restarts, but no one can score. The period ends 0-0. Moreno wins the coin flip and chooses Jake's right leg. Each kid takes a warning before they finally explode while Short easily fights off the takedown and manages to get one of his own. The first period goes to Short, 1-0. The second period starts out exactly as the first ended with a blur of activity, but this time Short get the takedown, and a quick tilt to go up 3-0. This is followed by three straight takedowns by Jake and it's a tech, 6-0.
Jake is pumped after this seemingly easy win. "I'm excited after that win. He was broken after I survived the coin flip. By the way, that's 13 straight coin flips that have gone to my opponent!" He went on to say how low his positioning is and it makes it almost impossible to have someone score.
This is the match everybody is talking about: Jake Short vs. Brian Murphy. It's too bad this is happening so early. Did I just say early? (This is the seventh round!) Most experts think these are perhaps the two most talented wrestlers here at 145 pounds. It's possible one may not place. Here are Brian Murphy's credentials:
Up to this point I notice most of Jake's opponents are built like him. But Murphy is long and lean. He looks completely sculpted and obviously is in great shape. After the whistle blows, both guys throw seemingly weak fakes for the first minute. Jake dives in for a quick single leg and puts Murphy on his back where he holds him for a long time and suddenly the period is over at 4-0. That happened so fast I could feel the air come out of the coaches and fans' mouths. Jake's grandma can be seen pacing across the mat and she is easily heard yelling, "Go Jakey!" The second period is faster paced than the first and Short gets a takedown at the edge of the mat just before the minute mark ticks by. There is a restart and Short gets another beautiful single to a double leg and rides Murphy hard and there is a break with Jake up 2-0. Murphy is now desperate and comes at Short with a series of shots to the legs, an attempted duck and a head shuck without any success. Jake Short wins again in two straight periods ... in another shutout!
I follow him over to the caged area. He sits on a chair and I kneel next to him and I ask him to just say whatever he's thinking. "I feel so good," he says. "I want to go back out there and do it again. I felt so strong when I lifted him over my shoulders. I am going to use this and carry it forward. I'm going to be the national champion!" I walk away from him convinced he will.
The time between matches is getting tighter. This is the third match in just over an hour. They don't seem to have the mandatory time off like most other tournaments. That's one of the many reasons that make Fargo so brutal. There's nothing like this anywhere. The atmosphere is electric as every wrestler is battling for a spot to become an all-American. Many kids have gone home by now and only the very best left. I knew Jake's next opponent had taken a loss somewhere and I half way expecting a lesser-known name than Murphy, and an easier match. His name is Anthony Collica of Ohio. Here are Collica's credentials:
Jake Short (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)On paper it looks like an easier match than Murphy. He is shaped almost identical in body type to Short. They both are low to the ground and muscular. I hear his loss came to Junior National Greco-Roman champion Grant LaMont from Utah, who is already knocked out of the tournament. Dad Will gives Jake his customary lift in the air to crack his back and off come the warm up clothing.
Right at the whistle, Collica gets in on a leg and forces a push out for a quick 1-0 lead. I think this is Short's first point given up today. This kid is really tough. After a restart, there are a number of great shots taken, but all blocked with ease. Finally with less than 30 seconds left in the period, Jake breaks in on a double leg and squeezes hard and lifts Collica off the mat and back down for the lead at 1-1. At the ten-second mark, Collica gets Jake's ankle and raises it and they tumble down with Collica on top while the whistle blows. One judge awards a point but nothing from the other two. It's official. Jake Short wins a crazy first period, 1-1.
The second periods starts out like a quick spreading fire, with each trading shots. Jake has a leg only to get slammed with a cross face and Collica reaches around for an open cradle. Time seems to slow way down as his arms come together and Collica falls over with Short tight against him. There is hardly any room for Jake to roll out of this but just as it seems he might, Collica squeezes harder and it's tight. Jake Short is pinned. The time on the clock shows 35 seconds left in the second period. I'm not breathing for a few seconds while I watch Jake painfully get up. He looks bewildered with the look of someone who isn't quite sure what happened. In the next second, I can see the reality setting in. Jake is likely not going to be wrestling for the national title. I follow him as he quickly leaves the coaches, trainers, and judges to get some freedom to move. He is almost jogging and I can hardly catch up to him. I am 20 feet behind as I hear Will say, "Give him some space here, Steve." I am glad to get those instructions. I stand off near a side entrance and watch Jake handle this defeat. He punches a padded wall and slams his other fist into his travel bag. He is ripped open by this loss. This pain is private and isn't meant to be seen by the fans. He had to know this might have happened, but I don't believe he truly thought it could. He was absolutely convinced this was his moment. I doubt he forgets about this for a long time. It's time for me to get away.
Pat Short (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)I find his grandma Pat watching Jake's teammate Micah Barnes. I ask if she is OK and she jokingly (not sure now) tells me I am the kiss of death. She reminds me of the unexpected loss Brandon Kingsley took last year when I followed him in Fargo, and this year it happens to Jake. She gives me a quick smile and changes the subject, telling me how successful the kids from Simley are doing. Wanzek and Barnes are undefeated, both will go on to the final round without a loss. She absolutely loves her Simley boys and adds an "ey" at the end of each of their names: Nickey, Jakey, Mackey. She then drops a bomb on me. Jake still has a chance to be in the championship match. I must have mumbled something stupid because she literally grabs my arm and says "follow me." She takes me up to the announcer's area on the top of a raised platform. She sits down at a computer and quickly points out all the wrestlers in the top half of the bracket. Each one has taken a loss. If Jake wins his next match against Dylan Milonas, and Brian Murphy beats Anthony Collica, that will open the door. If either one doesn't happen, it can't. I jump down those stairs two at a time thinking this show is not over. I am thinking this is destiny at its finest and this just might happen. I run to another match to let it go for a while.
It's time again and Jake is not talking. I ask his dad if he knows what's at stake. He nods his head. Right behind us on Mat 7, Murphy and Collica will be going at it, while Short vs. Milonas will be on Mat 3. Here are Milonas' credentials. He is a one of Blair Academy's shining stars.
The Murphy-Collica match starts a few ticks before Jake's and I am already twisting my neck to watch both. I notice Murphy manages the first takedown, 1-0, and it stays that way while Jake shakes Dylan Milonas' hand. Milonas is as tall as Murphy and well built. He's also cat-quick. The whistle blows and Jake is in right away on a successful td to a tilt to take a quick 3-0 lead. He follows this with a leg lace and is up 4-0. It stays that way when Milonas desperately tries different combinations and Jake seems to intentionally give him one with only a few seconds left on the clock. The period is over at 4-1 Short. I notice Murphy loses his first period 1-1.
Jake Short (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)The second period starts slower, but Short manages a quick leg lift and down to the mat goes Milonas (1-0). I hear the high pitched yell of Blair's head coach Jeff Buxton screaming instructions at Milonas. Meanwhile, Will Short stays calm. Jake gets another pushout to jump out to a 2-0 lead. Milonas knows his tournament is on the line and runs at Short with a head of steam as Jake fights off all attempts. At the end Milonas manages a late one-point, but it is too late. It's over. Jake Short wins in two periods. He gives a big smile to Dylan and his dad and grandpa. We already know what he doesn't. Murphy has already lost. Jake looks over at the opposite scoreboard and his face drops the smile. He looks like he just lost to Milonas and he walks away knowing for sure it's over. He will wrestle for third place tomorrow.
I find Jake Short and realize we haven't talked since he took the loss on Friday to Collica. I ask him after nearly 24 hours how this is settling with him. He gives me the standard answers I expect. "I should have won that match. I'm not saying Collica didn't deserve it, he got his arm raised. But I just know I could have and should have won." I then ask him how he feels wresting for third place. "I'm going to prove I should have been in the championship match. There's no chance I lose this. I'm going to pound this guy just to send a message."
Jake's opponent is one of the top three guys on the bottom part of the bracket, Jack Bass. Here are Bass' credentials:
Period 1 starts out in a flurry with Short getting a nice single leg to the outside, immediately turning Bass backwards for another two count. 3-0 lead for Short. After an unsuccessful attempt at another turn, the official calls for a restart and Short gets another attack on Bass's legs for a takedown, 4-0. There's another whistle and Short circles around the middle of the mat to protect the lead and the period ends.
The second period starts just as fast as the first with Short getting another leg takedown in less than 30 seconds. There's a whistle and Jake gets another takedown and then gets Bass in an arm trap and rolls him three straight times and wins the second period 6-0. He finishes Fargo with a resounding win and claims third place.
Jake Short with the other top finishers at 145 pounds (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Despite finishing third, he manages to outscore his opponents 80-10 with a pin in 10 matches. Only two matches were close and this scribe is buying into Jake's earlier statement about who really was the top wrestler at 145 pounds. We walk side by side and suddenly we stop. He looks up on the elevated championship mat and notices Collica wrestling for the championship. He shakes his head in disgust and keeps walking. There are no words that could have screamed as loud as the pain I saw on his face during that quick look. He knows.