Johnstown’s Nellis making up for lost time

JOHNSTOWN – The road to the state tournament in any sport is never an easy one.

For Johnstown wrestler Joe Nellis, the road took an unexpected detour.

After finishing second at the Section II Division II (small-school) Tournament in 2011, Nellis had every expectation of getting to the states last season as a junior.

Instead, he found himself trying to figure out what was wrong with his right shoulder after injuring it during the first football game of his junior season.

Initially the injury was diagnosed as a shoulder separation, but when the shoulder didn’t heal, Nellis was forced to miss his junior season on the wrestling mat as well.

Instead of bidding for his first trip to the state tournament last season, Nellis was forced to watch from the sidelines.

“It was frustrating watching last season,” Nellis said. “After making the finals as a sophomore, I really wanted to get back there. It was hard not to be able to be out there.”

When the injury was finally revealed to be a torn labrum, wrestling season was over. However, Nellis made it back onto the athletic field before his junior season ended.

With the help of cortisone shots in the injured shoulder, Nellis, a left-handed pitcher, gutted out the baseball season for the Sir Bills.

As soon as baseball season ended, Nellis had surgery on his torn labrum June 1.

The rehab process was a lengthy one, and it was one that didn’t end until Nellis was cleared to wrestle just two days before the start of this year’s wrestling season.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “I wanted to be out there, but with rehab and getting the strength back, it took a long time.”

Even when he was cleared to wrestle, Nellis had a way to go before he was in wrestling shape.

“My shoulder was sore for a long time after the surgery, and I was only cleared to wrestle two days before the season started,” Nellis said. “Once it started to get loose, I felt a lot better. It was hard because it took me a while to get into wrestling shape.”

Nellis started the season wrestling at 285 pounds before working his way down to 220 pounds. It was at 285 pounds, he lost his lone match of the season, to Lansingburgh’s Raekwon Ward.

After watching instead of wrestling last season, Nellis had one goal in mind for this season.

“My goal is to be a state champion,” Nellis said. “I’m going in with the attitude that I’m not going to settle for anything less or let anyone stand in my way.”

Nellis, who is 29-1 in his senior season, has made quick work of most of his opposition this season.

In his 30 matches, Nellis has 26 wins by pinfall with 23 of those coming in the first period. The other three pins came in the second period. Only one of Nellis’ matches has gone the full six-minute distance this season a 9-3 win over Schenectady’s Emanuel Zamora.

After pinning his way to the Section II Class CC Tournament title on Feb. 2 at Schalmont High School, Nellis did the same at the Section II Division II Tournament at Queensbury High School on Feb. 10.

Nellis won the 220-pound Division II title by pinning Schalmont’s Marcus Ramundo 1:10 into the first period.

“This is right where Joe [Nellis] wanted to be all year long,” Johnstown coach Joe Morrison said. “He did everything he had to do to get here. He put in a lot of hard work to be here. I’m so happy for him and proud of him.”

Nellis had little trouble on his way to the title, scoring first-period pins in all three of his matches on his way to winning Johnstown’s first Section II Division II title since Morrison and Mark Gillen won in the 2008-09 season. Nellis also pinned Mechanicville’s Zach Perras (1:09) in the quarterfinals and Schuylerville’s Harrison Proctor (1:24) in the semifinals on his way to the championship match.

“It was definitely a surprise to me because I didn’t expect to have anyone at states in my first year as head coach,” Morrison said. “It wasn’t a surprise for Joe [Nellis] though. This has been his goal since day one this season, and he’s put in the hard work to get there.”

Nellis is scheduled to face top-seeded Zack Bacon of Hornell in his first bout today. Bacon, who placed second in the Division II 220-pound weight class last year, is 33-0 this season.

“Every kid at the states is top level,” Morrison said. “I don’t think wrestling in a big arena will add any pressure because you can feed off the positive energy. It’s a great experience just to be able to go there and wrestle. Just being there is an accomplishment.”

Nellis said having Morrison in his corner, along with assistant coach Jake Blowers, a former Broadalbin-Perth standout has helped.

“Joe [Morrison] helps me a lot because he’s been there before and knows what to expect,” he said. “He and coach Blowers are young, but they have a lot of experience under their belts.”

The experience of competing at states is something that Nellis has been shooting for since he was 4 years old and competing for the Johnstown Youth Wrestling program and later, the Amsterdam Premier Wrestling Club.

It has also provided a boost for the Johnstown High School program.

“Having Joe [Nellis] get to states shows the other guys what’s possible if they work hard enough,” Morrison said. “It’s a great thing for the program and a positive thing for the community.”

Several members of the community will be among those heading to Albany to watch Nellis compete in his final tournament as a Sir Bill.

Morrison said the senior standout will be ready for the stiff competition ahead.

“He knows what needs to be done and goes out and does it,” he said. “He’s mentally and physically ready for the state tournament. Now, he’s just got to go out and wrestle like he knows how to wrestle. I’m looking forward to states. We’re going to go there and take it one match at a time and six minutes at a time.”

After a full season without any matches, Nellis said he’s looking forward to competing on the biggest stage the sport has to offer at the Times Union Center this weekend.

“It will be nice to wrestle in the state tournament close to home,” Nellis said. “My family is all coming to watch, so it’s going to be pretty special and exciting. I’m really excited to have the experience of going to states. I can’t wait.”