It has been a long strange trip for Max Wessell.
The former state champion wrestler from Boulder's journey will finally come to end this week in one of the most hallowed sports venues in the country.
Now a senior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Wessell will be at Madison Square Garden for the NCAA Wrestling Championships after claiming the EIWA title earlier this month in Princeton, New Jersey.
"There is not a single bad kid and there really is no such thing as a good draw," said Wessell, who is seeded No. 8 at heavyweight and will open Thursday morning with Hofstra's Mike Hughes in New York City.
"You've got to be ready to wrestle every single match. But, I am looking forward to it."
Wessell has wrestled both Hughes and his potential second round opponent , ninth-seeded Michael Kroelis of Minnesota and admits he "feels comfortable" with each of them.
And who can blame him? Wessell, who qualified for the NCAA's two years ago, is eager to get back and redeem himself. After missing all of last year because of ankle surgery in October and then knee surgery the following January, he is finally at 100 percent.
He arrives at Madison Square Garden riding a wave of momentum. He was one of two Mountain Hawk's wrestlers to win titles — Darian Cruz was the other.
In the semifinals he dismantled Hughes 7-2 to set up a chance at No. 1 Joe Stolfi of Bucknell. Trailing 1-0 in the third, Wessell got the takedown he needed to take the lead and when Stolfi tried to escape, Wessell was able to send him back to the mat hard and he was never the same.
Wessell was awarded the victory via injury default when Stolfi couldn't continue due to an injured shoulder.
"The goals I would really like to accomplish are being a national champion or even being a Division I All-American," said Wessell, who was recruited to the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania school out of high school. "But really is has been about the journey the whole time and I have really had fun this year and now I"m just seeing it out to the end."
After winning the 189-pound state title in 2010 for the Panthers, Wessell deferred his eligibility that fall and went 20-7 as an unattached wrestler. The following year under the tutelage of his father Buck — the USA Judo Olympic Team leader — again deferred for an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Team in his first sport.
It wasn't until the fall of 2012 when he went full time with coach Pat Santoro's Thunder Hawks. But he didn't forget his roots, and a lot of the training he received in judo have paid continued to pay off for him on the mat.
"My wrestling is built on my judo background," said Wessell, who has grown leaps and bounds in his five season at Lehigh. "I can't even compare the two. I was a good wrestler in high school, but I was not DI level.
"But the coaches and training partners I have here, I was really able to progress my wrestling over the past five years."
The tournament starts on Thursday morning and will be aired on both ESPN3 and ESPNU through the first few rounds. Saturday night's finals will be aired on ESPN at 6 p.m.