CLEVELAND -- The journey has been long and it has been rewarding for Romero Cotton of Nebraska-Kearney.

And it has been rocky at the same time.

He won 10 state championships in three sports, four of them in wrestling, at Hutchinson High School in Kansas. He was a national champion in the cadet level in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He was so skilled that he wound up at Div. I Nebraska in
2009 as a freshman wrestler on scholarship.

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That was five years ago.

What followed was a prison sentence for assault as the result of a family situation, a football scholarship at Hutchinson Community College, and a combined wrestling and football scholarship at Nebraska-Kearney.

As a 24-year-old sophomore, he has been ranked No. 1 in NCAA Div. II at 197 pounds. He survived the first day of the NCAA DII Wrestling Championships at Cleveland Public Hall by winning a pair of close matches, one of them decided by a video review. He is hoping to win his first individual national championship on Saturday while also still hoping to help push Nebraska-Kearney to its third consecutive team championship.

It is why he went to Kearney.

“There’s a lot of history at Kearney,” Cotton said. “Even before I got here, there was already a one-time national championship. There’s a lot of history of guys working hard and trying to win these national championships. You don’t come in here trying to win conference championships, you come to the school for national championships.”

He has clearly become one of the forces of not only the Kearney wrestling program, but also the football program because he begins the school year by playing at running back for the Lopers and then switching over to wrestling.

“You know, it’s such a load for a student-athlete to do one sport, let alone two,” Nebraska-Kearney coach Marc Bauer said. “We don’t get him until second semester. Getting him in shape, getting him going, getting his mind refocused on wrestling, it’s a challenge. He’s just a likeable young man. Doing very well academically. Psychology major. He wants to work with troubled youth someday.

“I’ve got a special place in my heart for him because he’s just a great young man. He’s really a leader on the team. Just an absolute workhorse.”

As the nation’s top-ranked wrestler, Cotton has faced a number of strong matches from his opponents. After defeating Evan Rosborough, a freshman from Lake Erie, on Friday night, Cotton was quick to compliment his opponent. Cotton was ahead just 2-1 when he pulled a reversal to go ahead by three points. He won the match, 6-4.

“I get everybody’s best,” Cotton said. “Today, I won two matches by one point [actually, two points]. Guys I’ve never heard of. They definitely knew who I was, I guess. You can just tell, I have that target on me. I’m pretty confident that I can keep them off of it.”

“He doesn’t stress out about who he’s wrestling,” Bauer said. “He just wants to go out and perform. And really that’s our focus in our program here. It’s not about winning and losing. If you go out and you perform well, you have a great chance of winning these matches. “

It is Cotton’s maturity in reacting to those opponents, as well as his own teammates, that impresses Bauer. Cotton is a leader on the team.

“Very respectful. Win or lose, he always shakes hands walking off the mat,” Bauer said. “He wants to win a national championship individually, but he’d love to see our team repeat again. I know it’s a heck of a challenge this year because there’s so much parity within wrestling.”

Because of Cotton’s trouble with the law, Bauer said he and other school officials had deep discussions with Cotton before any scholarship or admittance papers were signed. There are no regrets, only happiness.

“He takes his athletics and schooling serious. That’s outstanding for a young man,” Bauer said. “We’re blessed to have him in our program because he is such a fine leader in so many aspects of our program right now.”