Four years ago, there was a smaller, wide-eyed Neosho wrestler named Cayden Auch who had just won his first Central Ozark Conference wrestling title by pinning his finals opponent.

The 106-pound freshman exited the mat and hadn’t even broken a sweat. Before he could make his way back up to the stands to put on his street clothes, he was tracked down by a newspaper reporter — me — and asked to give some insight into his goals for that season as well as his prep career.

And boy, were those goals lofty.

“Coming into the year, my goal was to come here (Neosho High School) and just dominate every match,” Auch said. “It’s all about doing what I have to do to be a state champion. ... To be a four-time state champion, you have to win your freshman year. It’s always been the plan.”

Fast forward to today, and Auch has three state titles under his belt with the opportunity to claim a fourth in March.

I’ll be damned if he doesn’t do it.

Auch has already cemented himself as one of the best wrestlers to come out of Neosho, and to say that’s an elite club is probably an understatement. The NHS wrestling program is consistently considered to be among the top programs in the state — some years the nation — as it’s churned out multiple state champions and team state titles since Jeremy Phillips became head coach 16 years ago. (He also is the head junior high wrestling coach, something he has been doing since 1997.)

“We’ve had a lot of great wrestlers come out of this program,” Phillips said. “To say Cayden ranks up there with the very best — yes, he absolutely does. To say he’s the best is definitely debatable. But with me, I don’t like to talk about individuals. I always try to focus on the team. To compare Cayden to the kids of the past, I can’t do that to Cayden or the other guys. There’s a lot that would go into defining who is the best that’s come out of here.”

For others, the debate could be settled by the end of this season. No other Neosho wrestler has claimed four state titles before. Say Auch becomes the first to do it. Does it automatically catapult him to the top of the program’s list of all-time greats?

A strong argument would definitely be made for Auch, if there isn’t one already.

But you also have to remember a Neosho alumnus named Nate Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is the only Neosho wrestler to make the state finals four times in his prep career. An eventual NCAA Division II national champion and three-time All-American at Maryville University, Rodriguez won three prep state titles and finished runner-up once from 2009-13.

“Nate is somebody Cayden looked up to and still looks up to today,” Phillips said. “So even though they were years apart, you could say Nate played a role in Cayden’s success. He laid a blueprint.”

From a career-record standpoint, Auch is on a similar pace to what Rodriguez did during his days as a Wildcat. Rodriguez went 210-12 in his prep career, and Auch is 203-7 with about 1 1/2 months left in his senior campaign.

Either way, guys like Auch and Rodriguez are seemingly in a class of their own. They’re built different.

More specifically, they’re Phillips Built.

Phillips has been a coach and mentor for Auch ever since he was introduced to the sport in elementary school. According to Phillips, Auch started wrestling a couple years later than most of the other wrestlers in his youth club in Neosho, and he wasn’t a fan of getting bested by the more experienced kids in the early days.

“The thing with Cayden though is that it’s not that he just hates losing,” Phillips said. “That’s not what makes him different. Everybody hates losing. What makes him different is his willingness, his drive to do whatever it takes to win. ... If you want something more, you have to put in more. He’s done that from the very start.”

Auch soon went on to claim his first state title at the youth level just a couple of years later, and the success has only ballooned ever since.

When it comes to the most memorable moments of Auch’s wrestling career, Phillips will tell you the story about the celebratory double leg after winning a state title at the 152-pound weight class as a junior.

Once the third-period clock hit zero to punctuate a 5-1 win over Pacific’s previously unbeaten Callum Sitek, Auch ran at a dead sprint to the corner of the mat toward Phillips, who held his arms out in anticipation of a hug. To Phillips’ surprise, Auch changed levels and went in for the takedown attempt instead.

Phillips believes he sprawled in time to defend Auch’s shot and avoid giving up the takedown. However, whether Auch got the two points is still debated between the two to this day.

“He didn’t get the two,” Phillips said, laughing. “He had the setup and the element of surprise in his favor, but he didn’t get it. He’ll say otherwise, but you can go back and watch the tape.

“It’s funny because earlier in the year he came up to me and said, ‘What if someone wins a title and would come at you and take you down?’ I was like, ‘Well that’s not going to happen.’ I didn’t even think that was something he’d considered doing because he’s just not that kid. But he sure as heck went for it.”

Needless to say, Phillips will be ready for whatever is thrown at him if Auch becomes a four-time state champion in March.

“I’ll probably be down in a three-point stance or something,” Phillips said. “But joking aside, the thing I’d like to highlight with Cayden is his humility. He’s not arrogant. He’s very humble, and he always gives the credit and glory to God. He’s that type of role model I want other kids after him to model themselves after. He’s a great example of our core values in Neosho wrestling: faith, family, work, learning, loyalty and humility. And like I said, he’s a great testament to each of those.”

Auch, competing at the 160-pound weight class after winning state titles at 106, 126 and 152, will continue his wrestling career at NCAA Division I University of Arkansas at Little Rock next year.

Jared Porter is a sports reporter for The Joplin Globe. His email is jporter@joplinglobe.com.

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