After dropping a 5-1 decision in the 145-pound Division III State Championship match earlier this month, St. John senior Nick Burgard could only reflect on what he’d already known.
People were watching him, especially those who wanted to take what he had.
“He’s been working on beating me all year,” Burgard said of his opponent, Dustin Morgillo of Genoa Area. “You don’t think about the people you beat, you think about the ones who beat you.”
If Burgard learned anything since winning the 2018 state title, it’s just that — people are watching him.
It was most obvious at the start of the mat season with the Heralds opening up at the Solon Comet Classic, where each time he stepped on the mat, the announcer would boom out “Division III State champion,” as to let everyone know to direct their attention to him.
But it wasn’t just the wrestling community that had their eyes on him.
St. John is not just a high school, it has students from kindergarten up.
In the halls, a fourth grader gave Burgard a big smile and said “Hi, Nick.”
“Hi,” Burgard said back with a smile.
“I’m sorry, I don’t even know who you are,” he then told the youngster.
The fourth grader responded, "I watch you wrestle."
The reality that more and more people are looking at him is something Burgard said affected how he did things on the mat as well as off.
“A lot of the choices that I make are made with the mindset that people are looking at me now,” he said. “I didn’t really get that my freshman and sophomore year. I was kind of just going with the flow. Then I realized that I have people in my life who need to have the right example in their lives.”
And quite an example he has been.
The son of Jarrod and Kimberly Burgard, he is the 2019 Ashtabula County Wrestler of the Year, as agreed upon by county coaches. He went 39-6 this season, finishing as state runner-up.
His career mark at St. John is 146-35. He was a three-time state qualifier, two-time state finalist and the 2018 state champion.
But that’s far from where the example he set stops. He is also involved with football and cross country for the Heralds and swims for Lakeside — St. John does not have a program.
In the past, he played tennis and, as a young child, was involved with gymnastics. Aside from that, he’s also involved with academic clubs and does community service as well.
Wrestling may be his top sport, but his attitude toward those others is not affected. Just ask the ones who coach him.
“Nick is a true competitor in everything he does,” Lakeside swim coach Maureen Surbella said. “He attacks every turn, his every stroke, his every technique. He recognizes that his strength is wrestling, but he always strives to be better in the water.”
His other coaches had similar thoughts.
“He always excels exponentially,” cross country coach Moses Smith said. “He is a phenomenal aerobic athlete. What I witness from watching him run is he has a mental toughness. Cross country is a mental sport when it comes to the 5K run. A lot of kids have a tough time adjusting to it, but Nick; he’s so mentally tough that it doesn’t bother him.”
Football coach Scott Knisely said that “Nick is a natural leader. He leads by example, he works hard. He never wants to waste any time, he constantly wants to be learning and he constantly wants to work to get better.”
Of course the coach who knows Burgard best, though, is Heralds wrestling coach Scott Blank.
Blank was introduced to Burgard about the time he was in grade school wrestling with the Little Lizards program.
Burgard's mental toughness that Smith alluded to is something that the senior credits Blank for helping with.
“He’s a beat-the-snot-out-of-you, make-you-tough kind of coach,’ Burgard said of his varsity mentor. “In a lot of ways, that was honestly what I needed. I think I was missing a little bit of that. I had a lot of the technique that I needed, but there were a lot of mental blocks in my way. He definitely toughened me up. But, he’s also a lot of fun, always joking around and encouraging us. He never has anything negative to say.”
And the coach certainly has nothing negative to say about Burgard.
“It’s been a blessing to have him around as many years as I’ve been around him,” Blank said. “He’s super smart, he picks up technique real easy. When I got around him, his mental preparation was probably where he needed to build, and that’s where I do pretty good with kids that struggle with that. He had everything else.”
Included in everything else is the ability to make others around him better.
“He’s not selfish,” Blank said. “He was never like 'I just have to win another state title.' He’s a great drill partner, he made our wrestling room better. You look at (Ethan) Ducca, I think a lot of his success is from the help Nick gave him.”
Burgard made his first trip to the state tournament two years ago as a sophomore and went 1-2. He came back the next year and dominated his way to the 138-pound championship, scoring a first-period pin in the title match.
This year, after scoring a technical fall in his opening bout, a pin in the quarterfinals and an 11-5 decision in the semifinals, he reached the championship mat again.
There, he had a pair of strong first period shots, but was unable to score. Instead, he was taken down near the end of the first period.
He scored an escape in the second, but nothing more. Morgillo had the luxury of selecting down to start the third period. He escaped, then added a takedown to secure the crown away from Burgard.
While he was disappointed about coming up a little bit short in his final match, Burgard's focus now is not on looking back, but looking ahead.
“Missing on shots is part of wrestling,” he said of the first period that set the tone of his last high school match.
But, he’s also learned that moving on is not only a part of the sport, but a part of life.
“My dad always told me that looking back at your past won’t help you,” he said. “You have to forget about it basically. My focus now is looking forward to college, getting ready for some Roman-Greco tournaments and that sort of thing.”
Burgard will continue his wrestling career at Lake Erie College this fall. A solid student all his life, he plans on studying business as well as biology to get his career path started.
His future is bright, but there’s certainly a lot of good to look back on as well, including the lessons he learned from winning a state title — as well as losing one.
“Keeping my composure is the thing I’ll keep with me the most,” he said. “Never giving up, even when your body wants to fail, you physically can’t stop. You have to finish the match. I think that’s something that’s going to stick the with me the rest of my life. When something doesn't go your way, you can’t lose your mind over it.”
Especially when there are so many people watching you.
“My parents raised me right,” he said. “I like to think that I know to do what’s right, but it’s nice to always have that reminder that people are looking at me.”
And not only are they looking at him, but they’re certainly going to remember him.