Inside the Infinite Energy Center on Feb. 15, Lambert senior Matthew Sheetz rose up from the mat and celebrated the greatest victory of his high school career—with a clutch, late pin, he prevailed, 7-5, over Tift County’s Quen Campbell to become the Class AAAAAA state champion in the 132 weight class.
“It was all pretty much a blur,” Sheetz said.
A state of euphoria. For the last two years, becoming a state champion was Sheetz’ number one goal. He qualified for state as a freshman, placed second—surprising himself—as a sophomore, and then finished runner-up again as a junior.
His final season was championship or bust.
“You never know if you’re going to be back in the finals, so that was scary to think about. I actually felt like last year I had the best chance,” Sheetz said. “I think it was good for me though. Had I won last season, I might not have worked as hard or been as motivated this year, so the last two years of losing were kind of meant to be.”
The truth, Sheetz admits, is that wrestling had only become his passion fairly recently. He’d been on the mats since middle school, but as he progressed and felt more obligated to keep going, he continued to become frustrated with the sport.
In his first two years on the varsity team, Sheetz was slotted in the 106 and 113 weight classes. Those were the same weight classes he finished second at state in, two years running. While his progression through the tournaments made it seem as if he was a fine-tuned athlete, he spent much of his down time frustrated, moody and drained.
“I was cutting a lot of weight to stay in the lower weight class,” Sheetz said. “Not only is that hard, physically, but it affects the way you feel. I spent a lot of time, honestly, with my parents really helping and pushing me through a lot. Luckily they’ve been so supportive through the entire process.”
So, heading into his senior season, Sheetz changed things up. It was a daring move, considering he had come so close to a state title as a certain type of wrestling. He began to add weight, prepared to compete in his final season in the 132-class. Instead of knowing the wrestlers in front of him, he’d prepare for his final season with a new slate of competition and style.
It was the best decision he’d ever make.
“This season I was just so much more comfortable,” Sheetz said. “I was at a natural weight. I felt healthier. I enjoyed myself so much more. I’d go to practice happy, prepared to work on my technique rather than worrying about where I stood, physically, or how I felt. It made pushing myself so much easier.”
Quickly, Sheetz discovered his experience as a lighter wrestler translated to a dominant style, compared to his heavier opponents. He was quicker, more agile and had more endurance, which allowed him to outlast the opposition. The result: A remarkable 53-2 record and a regional, sectional and state championship.
“It’s still unbelievable to me,” Sheetz said of his senior year. “I’d go to bed the last few years wondering what it would feel like to be a state champion. I’d recreate the image of celebrating a finals match in my head. To actually do it was such a relief.”
Question: What was going through your mind when you decided to switch to a medium weight class?
Sheetz: I was definitely a little worried. I had to get to the finals again. It’s something I’ve always worked for. It was a difficult weight class, but there weren’t the three kids I was used to wrestling from the lower classes. I grew away from some pretty good wrestlers, so it was good for me to wrestle different kids.
Q: Who was the toughest opponent you faced this year?
Sheetz: Cody Russell from Collins Hill. We both have similar styles, so we kind of clashed and it was very hard for both of us to score points. There was a big controversy because I scored in the last 13 seconds to win the match, but the referees reversed it and I lost by one. I know Cody so there were no hard feelings. He won state at 126.
Q: What’s it like knowing you’re the first wrestling state champion in Lambert history?
Sheetz: That’s really cool, knowing that I’ll always be the first. I’m sure we’ll have one next year. I think Eric Kohlins will do it. We’ve always had the curse of finishing as runner-up, it happened like five or six times. It feels good to break that.
Q: How did Lambert’s program go from a non-state team to fourth at state, considering you’ve been here for the progression of the program?
Sheetz: I just think it was the kids who kept coming in. A lot of us grew into weights that we needed to be in as time went on, so that was a big thing. We’ve all been wrestling since the seventh and eighth grade and we got six at state as kids, so we knew we could be good if we developed. I got to watch so many friends develop, so I can’t wait to watch next year.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
Sheetz: I’m going to the University of Tennessee. My mom went there. I had a chance to wrestle in college at UT-Chattanooga. Some other schools like Appalachian State and Columbia also sent me letters…but Tennessee is just where I feel like I belong. I’m going to major in business analytics.
Sheetz personally thanks his father, Darrin, his mother, Michele, and Eric Diemert, a fellow senior and practice partner throughout his high school career. He also thanks Kevin Contardi and the rest of the Lambert coaching staff for their support.