By Neil Patrick Healy
This time last season, senior Kirk Jackson was watching his teammates claim the national championship from afar. He had lost to fellow teammate Zach Smith in a three-round box-off to decide who would represent Nevada in the 147-pound weight division. Jackson got a second chance this season and didn’t let it go to waste. Jackson, along with JJ Mariano and Garrett Felling, won individual national championships and helped Nevada place third as a team behind the United States Military Academy and the United States Air Force Academy.
“An enormous weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” Jackson said. “When I missed regionals last year, I told myself every day I was coming back stronger. Last year I was extremely proud and happy for my teammates and coaches. Although I was happy for what they achieved individually and what we achieved collectively, I still had an empty feeling and the ending didn’t sit right with me. I had to come back and win.”
After winning his first national championship to end his career, Jackson was hit by a whirlwind of emotions ranging from relief to satisfaction.
“It’s difficult to describe [how I felt],” Jackson said. “[I probably felt] every emotion imaginable. I cried. I came to the realization that I accomplished my goal and I was just so relieved and thankful.”
While Jackson was winning his first title, Mariano wrapped up his career with a second straight national championship, finishing with a 23-3 record. Mariano leaves the ring with a sense of gratification.
“It’s like a feeling of completion,” Mariano said. “I am satisfied knowing I left everything I had in the ring and that all my training paid off.”
Felling finishes his junior season with third straight national championship while amassing a 19-0 record for his career.
The Wolf Pack also had three fighters who did not win individual championships, but helped push Nevada to its third-place finish. Senior Zach Smith lost by decision to Air Force Academy’s Johnny Wells in the semifinals of the 156-pound division.
First-year fighters Tristan Harriman and Dre Gordon both lost on the first day of nationals. Harriman, 156 pounds, lost to Roy Estes of the United States Military Academy via split decision despite Estes having more experience in 14 more career fights under his belt. Nevada’s freshman Gordon suffered a hand injury in the first round and the coaches put a halt to the fight vs. Bobby Mey of the United States Coast Guard Academy.
Smith (fifth year of eligibility), Harriman and Gordon all return next season to join Felling for the quest to regain the national title.
“For Dre and Tristan, [nationals] kind of opens their eyes to the next level of competition,” Mariano said. “It gives them a new goal to strive for.”
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Heally.