Oregon freshman Owen Heiser sat quietly in Section 125 of the Kohl Center as the clock struck noon on Friday, Feb. 28, surrounded by family and friends and still adorning his bright orange wrestling shoes and warm-up pullover.
Thoughts of what could have been raced through his mind. A day earlier, Heiser nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the Division 1 individual state tournament.
The only freshman in the 145-pound bracket, Heiser lost a heartbreaking 13-11 decision in overtime to third-ranked Burlington senior Max Ehlen in the first round. The match turned out to be Ehlen’s closest, as he went on to win the state championship.
Heiser jumped out to a 5-3 lead after two periods and increased the lead to 11-6 with 30 seconds left in the third.
“I got to my offense to score back points,” Heiser said. “He was pretty easy to turn on top, so I figured I’d work off that.”
After nearly being pinned, Ehlen bounced back to score the final seven points of the match. He scored three back points in the waning seconds of regulation to tie it at 11, then took Heiser down with 20 seconds left in overtime.
“His tilt was fantastic. He wrestled masterfully,” Oregon coach Ned Lease said of Heiser. “He just paused for one second, and at the state tournament, that costs you. You just can’t ever take a break at this level.”
Heiser earned a chance to compete in the consolation bracket after Ehlen pinned Braeden Ott in the quarterfinals.
Heiser scored the first takedown in his third match of the season against Ott, but the Nicolet sophomore executed a half-moon cradle to set up the pin in 1:45.
Heiser, who came into the state tournament with an honorable mention ranking at 145 by WiWrestling.com, was Oregon’s lone state qualifier.
“It gives me confidence, but it makes me want to work harder this summer to get prepared for next year,” Heiser said. “I’ll be working on my strength and footwork to make sure I’m more technically sound.”
Lease said he expects him to be a leader in the Panthers’ wrestling room, which he hopes is even more competitive next season.
“He’s disappointed, but we’re still so proud of his season,” Lease said. “He’s going to come back stronger and sharper.”
Heiser finished his freshman campaign 31-11 and anticipates being moved up to 152 next season. His goal is to end up on the podium, no matter what weight class he’s slotted at.
“Just like climbing the steps to the top of the Kohl Center, you have to take one step at a time,” Lease said. “Having this experience is a big step for him.
“He’s farther along than most kids his age. He grew so much maturity-wise this season, and for him to be able to get in as deep as he did on his shots and turn the first kid, those are big physical gains. He’s well on his way to being the wrestler he can be.”