Peter Stewart was so close to being an All-American last year.
The 141-pounder from Iowa Western lost a 2-1 decision to the No. 2 wrestler in the second round of the NJCAA tournament in Des Moines, then finished a win short of the podium.
The close call helped the Sioux City North graduate realize how close he was to greatness on the mat. He just needed to find that something extra once postseason wrestling began.
“It basically made me realize how I need to win the big matches,” he said. “There’s winning now and winning at the beginning of the season. They’re completely different things.”
Stewart, now a sophomore, enters this week’s NJCAA tournament in Spokane, Wash., as the nation’s top wrestler at 141. The event begins on Friday at the Spokane Convention Center.
IWCC, in its third year, has yet to crown a national champion. Stewart hopes to be its first.
“My matches last season kind of motivated me to work hard all summer,” he said. “I worked all summer and all fall to get better. I started off the season well, and it made me think of how all of my offseason work was paying off. I was really showing huge improvements.
“In my mind, I can beat anybody in the country really. Even against Division I or Division II guys, I still feel like I’m in those matches. Wrestling those guys throughout the season has definitely prepared me for the big-time matches I have.”
Stewart has come a long way since his arrival in Council Bluffs. During his high school career at North, he was a state medalist only once, finishing seventh during his sophomore season.
“He really surprised us with his work ethic,” IWCC coach Josh Watts said. “Every competition, you saw him improve. The ceiling is always high with a kid like that.
“He’s not to the most naturally talented or athletic kid in the world. But he has the most important ingredient and that’s the willingness to outwork people. If you’re willing to do that, you can achieve a lot of great things. He’s never wavered on his work ethic.”
Stewart came to Iowa Western as a walk-on. He beat out teammate and 149-pound national qualifier Tyler Nation, a three-time Nebraska prep champion, for his starting spot last season.
“Since the beginning of last year, I knew I wasn’t the best kid at my weight, which is a lot different than in high school,” Stewart said. “That pushed me every single day to be better. I’ve always known that competition between weights makes guys a lot better.
“I feel like, ever since I left high school, I’ve got a lot of unfinished business. I still had a lot to do. Basically, my whole college career has been just to prove people wrong. I know, in high school, I didn’t finish out the right way. I know I can show everybody what I was capable of.”
Stewart has an opening-round bye at nationals. It will be his last event in a Reiver uniform and his final chance to display his abilities in front of coaches from four-year colleges.
Watts said seeing Stewart come into his own on the mat has been a pleasure.
“I think he’s going to go even further than what he has now,” he said. “It’s impressive what he’s done. But what’s important is that he finish where we think he can finish this year.”
Stewart and Nation were both champions at the recent qualifying tournament. Returning qualifier Adrian Lozano (126 pounds), Quenton Swanberg (184), Tim McDonald (197) and Chris Schleuger (285) will also be competing for the Reivers this weekend in Spokane.
“I just want my guys to go out there — and I don’t care who they’re wrestling - and control matches,” Watts said. “If we don’t worry about what other guys do and just do what we do, I think we’ll have a good tournament.”