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Tartan High School wrestler T.J. O’Hara paused while working out in the wrestling room at the high school in Oakdale during the week before the holidays. Photo by Jeff Wheeler • jwheeler@startribune.com

T.J. O'Hara struggled so much on the wrestling mat in second grade, his dad thought about pulling the plug in the middle of the season.

"He didn't think it was the sport for me," O'Hara said.

It didn't come easy for youngster, who is now a junior at Tartan. His first tournament, which didn't go quite as planned, was a rude awakening.

"Personally, I think I was terrible," O'Hara said. "I was awful. I didn't win a match."

When dad asked him if he still wanted to continue wrestling, O'Hara had a definitive answer.

"I said, of course," O'Hara said. "I wanted to get better at the sport. I always strive to be the best in anything I do."

Nine years later, O'Hara is marching across the state as the defending 152-pound Class 3A state champion. He's currently the No. 1 ranked wrestler at 170 pounds and receiving interest from several colleges. After finishing 40-2 last season, he's started 11-0 this year

"He's doing the typical T.J. O'Hara stuff," coach Dan Recchio said.

That means wrestling any chance he can.

O'Hara wrestles all year. He placed third at nationals in North Dakota this past summer. He's also a folkstyle and freestyle All-American.

"He gets on the mat as much as he can. That's what makes him awfully tough," Recchio said.

O'Hara has been on varsity since seventh grade, and he's qualified for state every year since. He was challenging for state titles in his seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade seasons. He earned his first championship last spring at Xcel Energy Center with a 6-1 victory over Adam Jackson of Rosemount.

O'Hara is wrestling at 182 pounds right now. He'll either stay at that weight or drop down to 170 by the end of the year, depending on where his body takes him and how the team is performing.

"He wants to wrestle the best. That's his mentality and that's what makes him tough," Recchio said. "He's fearless. He thinks he can beat anybody he wrestles. That mentality really is an advantage for him. He doesn't get intimidated by his competition.

"Some kids shy away from that tough match. He likes it."

Team victories have been hard to come by early in the season for Tartan. The Titans have been battling injuries and an unexpected departure.

Even without some key athletes, the Titans won their first tournament of the season, in Fridley.

Elijah McGeehan is back in the lineup at 170 pounds, but Tartan lost its 195-pounder, Jake Paulson, to a concussion in that first tournament. Kyle Taylor recently returned from a shoulder injury only to experience hip flexor complications.

The Titans have had to forfeit a couple of weight classes here and there while plugging holes with junior varsity wrestlers "just to have a body out there," Recchio said. Tartan had a 3-5 record through last weekend after beating Mora and River Falls at home.

"We'll just keep plugging away and doing our work," Recchio said. "Hopefully we can get healthy and on the mat in the right weights and see what kind of team we can put together by the end of the year."

O'Hara loves the thrill of victory, not just by himself, but with his teammates. He believes they have the talent to turn it around.

"Hopefully over this Christmas break they get healthy and we'll be right back on the mat, hopefully going for a section title as a team," O'Hara said.

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