The prospect of going 26 days in between matches was more than enough to prompt Keaton Hurst to return to the mat for Ozark’s duals with Branson and Kickapoo on Tuesday.
Hurst was hit by the flu bug last week and his health was still a concern, but he turned in first-period pins against both Branson’s Thomas Mutarelli and Kickapoo’s Karter Schwinger at 132 pounds.
It was Hurst’s first mat time since Jan. 20 at the Winnetonka Tournament. He was too sick to compete in the COC Tournament last weekend.
“If I didn't come back tonight and I don't feel 100 percent, shoot I’d forget the feeling of wrestling because it had been so long,” Hurst said, noting the Tigers are now idle until Districts Feb. 16-17 at Ray-Pec.
Hurst, who is 28-9, was thrilled to return to action, even if both matches were short and sweet.
“I love being back. I'm happy to be here,” he said. “ I just want to wrestle, that's all I care about. If I'm at least 80 percent, I know I've got a chance against anybody. You can't break me. I came back and got two pins.”
Hurst agonized sitting out the COC Tournament.
“Watching from home, it sucked,” he said. “It's hard to keep me from wrestling. But I could barely get out of bed.”
Hurst was looking for his first COC championship. He was runner-up the past two years, running into three-time state champion Zan Fugitt, of Nixa, in the finals both years.
This winter has tested Hurst’s patience, given how the flu bug has seeming hovered over him.
“This year is the most sick I've been in a while,” he said. “It keeps coming back. Sickness has went around our team. It's so hard not to catch something every once in a while. You're in the (wrestling) room with everybody and there is such close contact. It's hard not to get sick. You've got to battle through it. We all battle through it and we're finally getting past it.”
Looking ahead, Hurst will be gunning for his third straight State berth. He was sixth at 120 at State last year.
He’ll use the next two-plus weeks to build his conditioning back up to where it was prior to his sickness.
“Trust me, at Ozark we'll build our conditioning back up,” Hurst said. “We pride ourselves on that. These two and half weeks are going to be honing in a predator to his prey. I can't wait to get after it. I literally can't wait to get on the mat and do what I can do and show what I'm really capable of.”
Depending on if Hurst weight in at 126 or 132 for Districts, some of his top competition will include Lebanon’s Canon Roark, Neosho’s Kelton Shaffer, Republic’s Keaton Overcast or Willard’s Ethan Craft.
“I want the hard matches, I want the best kids,” Hurst said. “I don't know what I'm ranked and I really don't care. I'm going to wrestle above my rank, I know that. I'm on the attack. People are going to see me for the wrestler I am. It's all heart at the end of the season and I'm going to come out with my absolute best."