Matt Coughlin can still remember when he first met Nick Lee, back when the Penn State freshman was “just a scrawny sixth-grader” at his wresting club.
But even back then, Coughlin said he could tell that greatness awaited the Indiana native. He just didn’t know it would come as soon as this month — or this Friday, when Lee wrestles inside Rec Hall for the first time.
“If you know Nick, you know he’s just laser-focused and does everything by the books,” said Coughlin, a co-owner of Mauer Coughlin Wrestling Club in Evansville, Ind. “I knew he’d find his way into the starting lineup at Penn State, either as a true freshman or a redshirt freshman, he’d make his way into the limelight.”
Lee has been visualizing himself walking onto the Nittany Lion logo-emblazoned mat, wearing a blue and white singlet for almost a year — the first time he attended a home Penn State dual. And when Lee has a goal he wants to accomplish, he usually gets it done.
That’s been evident to all the coaches who have crossed paths with the 141-pound true freshman.
“What sticks out to me (about Lee) is his maturity and his focus,” said Greg Schaefer, Lee’s former coach at Mater Dei High School. “ He was always goal-oriented and had a mission, a vision. He knew what he wanted, had a plan and took advantage of the opportunities in front of him.”
After winning the Indiana state championship his junior year of high school, Lee decided to forgo his senior year of scholastic eligibility and move to Happy Valley to finish his degree while training in freestyle with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
He spent the first part of this season as a redshirt, wrestling unattached in open tournaments, amassing a 14-3 record while anticipation grew from fans for his varsity debut.
After an injury to Jered Cortez at the Southern Scuffle at the beginning of January, Penn State lifted Lee’s redshirt last Friday against Michigan. But for those who know Lee back home, starting for the No. 1 team in the nation as a rookie comes as no surprise.
“When he was with us, we knew he was a really special kid and the sky was the limit,” Schaefer said. “Everyone here has been anxiously awaiting his redshirt to be lifted.”
Since Lee committed to the Nittany Lions as a junior in high school in 2015, Schaefer says he’s seen more and more people — including his two sons — walking around Evansville wearing Penn State gear.
“Around here, he’s famous,” Coughlin said. “Kids from age 5 (and) up know who he is and talk about his work ethic and dedication to the sport.”
Lee knows a lot of eyes are going to be on him Friday. That’s why he said he hasn’t completely shaken off the nerves — but he’s trying to use that to his advantage. He just tells himself that nervousness is excitement, in an attempt to channel the adrenaline.
As far as everything else, he’s trying not to look too far ahead.
“I’m out there to wrestle and score a lot of points, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Lee said at Tuesday’s practice. “As far as starting, I’m here to help my team, and I’m just glad for the opportunity.”
Fortunately for Lee’s fans at home, many of them got to watch his varsity debut at Michigan on the Big Ten Network, as well as his runner-up Southern Scuffle performance on FloWrestling. And others, like Coughlin, have already made plans for Friday — even if Coughlin is traveling with his club team to Oklahoma for the Tulsa Nationals.
“We’ll be bringing a laptop and make sure all the guys are around to watch Nick wrestle,” he said.
Added Schaefer: “Kids on our team are watching, and it’s great in that regard because as a coach, you want your kids to follow wrestling, learn and pick up stuff from guys at the college level. ... I think a lot of our guys are much bigger college wrestling fans now.”
Friday is a night Lee has looked forward to for nearly a year, and it’s a moment his coaches knew was a long time coming. After a series of long waits, that time is almost here.
And Lee — and his friends, teammates and family — couldn’t be happier.
“We all know what he’s capable of,” Penn State junior Shakur Rasheed said, before adding “The kid just goes and goes and goes.”