The old cliche about the size of a dog in a fight certainly applies to Oak Hill’s J.C. Herring.
At 5-feet, 3-inches, the Golden Eagles standout wrestler in the 106-pound weight class for the last two seasons isn’t a physically imposing figure. The senior with an engaging smile, chisled physique and affable personality doesn’t strike you as being a wrestler at all, let alone one of the state’s best.
But Herring also has the heart of lion and the soul of a pitbull, traits many of his opponents from the 2016-17 wrestling season could attest to. He took a relentless, aggressive and attacking style to the mat and left it with wins in 36 of 41 matches his final season.
Few wrestlers finish a season or career at the state finals – only 16 a year make it that far in 14 weight classes. Herring did it twice. He was the lone wrestler from Grant County to finish this season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and for his outstanding senior wrestling season Herring earns the nod as the Chronicle-Tribune’s top Grant County winter sports athlete.
“The smile comes off his face and he focuses in,” Oak Hill coach Andrew King said of Herring’s transformation from fun-loving kid to state caliber wrestler. “It’s a sign of intelligence because you know that you have to become a different person.”
That transformation is something Herring was very good at, King said, and his work ethic in practice and coachability enabled that to happen.
“I stress as coach that you have to be a gentleman, you have to be a scholar and you have to be a civil person,” King said. “But when you walk across that line – you need to stay within the rules – but it’s a battle. That opponent wants to embarrass you. There’s no nice guy involved in it; wrestling is not a nice sport.”
Herring’s path to the state championship included sectional and regional championships for the second year in a row at Oak Hill. The fact he finished fourth in the semistate to punch his ticket to Indianapolis was somewhat unlikely, as he wrestled all four matches Feb. 11 suffering from bronchitis and pneumonia.
King and Herring agreed that it was a tough day.
“It was tough, but I couldn’t make up any stories when I’m older saying, ‘aw I was sick’,” Herring said of the semistate. “I just had to wrestle my match and take it one match at a time. I knew it could have been my last match, but I didn’t want it to be that day.”
Already a mentally demanding sport, King said Herring needed everything he had in his body and mind to earn his trip to the state finals.
“You have to wrestle with what you have and you have to learn to adapt, so he could not go all out right out of the blocks like he normally does,” King said. “You have to wrestle smart. He got the points that he needed early and basically sucked it up and endured the pain and anguish. It’s a mental thing because you want to go hard but you know you can’t. Fortunately he had just enough to get past the first kid and the second kid.”
I still think he could have finished higher than fourth, but he made that the goal he wanted,” he added. “It was a tough day. Kudos to him because he made it.”
King first met Herring at the regional during Herring’s sophomore year at Marion School. Herring had just pulled off what some considered to be an upset of a wrestler from Western to earn the first regional title of his career.
That first impression stuck with King and grew once Herring enrolled at Oak Hill for his junior year.
“He just had the biggest, happiest smile on his face,” King said of his congratulatory meeting with Herring. “What I noticed and what I appreciate most about J.C. Herring is he has just an optimistic and positive attitude. He doesn’t know any enemies and he can make a friend of stranger in heartbeat.”
Another thing King noticed about Herring very early in his junior season is that he’s also very coachable.
The combination of talent, work ethic and coachability are a great blend for any sport, and Herring stays busy throughout the year. He helped a young Oak Hill cross country team win a Grant Four title and qualify for semistate. Currently, he’s playing an outfield spot for the Golden Eagles baseball team and running for the track team.
Herring plans to further his education at Indiana Wesleyan in the fall and will study youth ministries.
“J.C. is going to have a successful life no matter what he does,” King said. “He’s a great young man and I feel really privileged to have coached him. My own son (Noah) has gained an incredible friend over the last two years.”
Unbeknownst to Herring at the time of his opening round loss in the state finals was he would have one more opportunity to wrestle in his career March 11-12 at the Indiana-Illinois Duals at Culver Academies. And he took full advantage by winning the final wrestling match of his career in a 15-2 walkover over a wrestler from Eureka, Ill.
Herring’s interest in wrestling started by watching his brother in middle school. He said he knew he was too short to play basketball but wanted to participate in a winter sport so he pursued wrestling.
Though he described winning his final match against one of Illinois’ top 106-pound wrestlers as bittersweet, earning another trip to state and an invite to the final showcase was a great way to call it a career.
“It means everything because you put so much into a sport and you just want to see success out of it,” Herring said. “That’s what I got this year. You only get out what you put in.”