Hayden Zillmer has the high school wrestling accolades to impress anyone. He holds the Crosby Ironton High School wins record, went 43-1 in his senior year and won three state championships while in Crosby, Minn. Zillmer is one of eight wrestlers to win national titles in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman.
But as a sophomore at NDSU, he has new goals to obtain. And he’s quick to respond if asked what those goals are: become an All-American.
Zillmer has made big leaps from his redshirt freshman year to this season to achieve that goal. He went 11-9 overall and 5-4 in duals last year. This season at 174 pounds, Zillmer has flown to a 24-6 overall record while going 13-3 in dual competition. That performance has him ranked as the 11th best wrestler in his weight class as of Feb. 25.
“It’s great,” Zillmer said. “It’s just kind of the next step in my wrestling career, so this is all part of the plan.”
Zillmer is used to success on the wrestling mat. He had no doubt in his mind on what his potential could reach this year.
“I felt like if I just kept working hard at what I’m doing, then success would come,” Zillmer said. “And I feel like how we train here, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t go up higher.”
Zillmer has steadily climbed the rankings this season. A third-place finish at the Midlands Championship in December, the second highest in NDSU history, gave Zillmer a more recognizable name.
But Zillmer said he doesn’t feel any added pressure with the rankings next to his name. In fact, many of his opponents seem to back off in duals.
Being a mentor of sorts for Zillmer is his teammate and 165-pounder Steven Monk. Monk is ranked No. 3 in the nation and has helped Zillmer in his climb in the national rankings.
“After every match I wrestle, me and Monk always have a conversation,” Zillmer said. “Even if he wrestles bad and I wrestle good, or we both wrestle not as good as we could’ve, we always have that conversation after our matches so it’s great.”
The two have helped boost the NDSU wrestling team to its best rankings in program history last week at No. 19 in the USA Today/NWCA Division I Coaches Poll. The Bison had their first Division I All-American last year in Trent Sprenkle. They have consistently been in the Top 25 polls the last two seasons.
But being on a campus where football is king and men’s basketball is pushing for a national tournament appearance, the wrestling team has been a hidden gem for NDSU athletics. But that’s nothing new for Zillmer.
“Personally, I’m kind of a guy that flies under the radar,” Zillmer said. “I think the guys push a little harder, because we have high expectations. We’re probably one of the highest ranked teams on campus,so it’s still awesome to be a part of. It’s nice, but it’s all kind of leading up to this postseason. And that’s where all our training is going for. So I guess all the rankings and all that doesn’t really matter right now … just finish the year strong.”
Finishing the year strong is what Zillmer expects to do. The wrestling team has two weeks until the NCAA West Regional on March 8 in Orem, Utah. That is where Zillmer will get his chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships. A top eight finish at nationals achieves his goal of gaining All-American status.
The road isn’t easy, and Zillmer knows improvements are still to be made. Small things like attacking more and not being afraid to pull the trigger are what he says he will work on in the coming weeks along with conditioning … all in hopes of capturing that one goal.
“I want to be an All-American,” Zillmer said. “I’m going to have to work hard here, improve on some stuff and peak at the right time.”