Standing at 6-foot, Max Hughes is typically taller than his foes when he steps onto the wrestling mat.
And at 138 pounds, the Syracuse senior is typically one of the skinniest, too.
"But he's strong," says Syracuse coach Jeremy Goebel. "He's a strong kid."
Strong enough to win three state titles at three different weight divisions. And strong enough, physically and mentally, to overcome some offseason adversity.
The state wrestling meet starts Thursday at CenturyLink Center Omaha, and Hughes is one of three competitors aiming to join the prestigious four-time state champions club. But Hughes' path to a potential fourth state championship hasn't been easy.
Last summer he was involved in a car accident after leaving work, and it left him with a broken femur. He couldn't go out for cross country, a sport Hughes competes in to stay in wrestling shape. And he missed the start of wrestling season while continuing to rehab.
But Hughes got back on the mat in time to shake off the rust and sharpen his skills. He said he didn't feel great wrestlingwise until about four weeks ago, and he wasn't able to run again until halfway through the season.
"Yeah, I was in pretty crappy shape most of the season, but I'm starting to feel better," said Hughes, who entered districts ranked second at 138 pounds in Class C. "Been working hard in practice and it's been paying off."
Hughes is 38-1 and his lone loss came against No. 1 Evan Waddington of Wood River during the regular season. The two wrestlers met in a district final last Saturday, and Hughes prevailed 4-2. They could meet again this week.
"I know that it could go either way, and I'm just going to remain humble, remain focused and do what needs to be done this weekend," Hughes said.
Hughes, who is 169-9 for his prep career, competed at 106 pounds as a freshman. He stood at 5-9 at the time. He got taller and wrestled at 113 as a sophomore and at 132 as a junior.
"I just grow," Hughes said of changing weight classes four times. "I don't really like cutting weight all that much."
Though Hughes is 32 pounds heavier than he was four years ago, Goebel said the senior remains just as quick on the mat.
"Wrestling's a lot to do with the mental state," Goebel said. "I don't think weight, as he's grown, slows his mind. Put some wrestling shoes on the kid and he's just going to go out and go."
A lot of that stems from a message delivered to the Rockets during practice: Go strong for three periods, six minutes.
For Hughes, the majority of his matches end well within six minutes. He owns the school record for fastest pinfall (six seconds), and has 126 career pins.
But the message remains the same.
"Whoever it is, wherever it's at, we know we've got to go six minutes," Goebel said. "We're just focused on getting better, making sure we're able to attack for those six minutes, and if we do that, good things happen."
Asked about the possibility of winning four state championships, the humble and confident Hughes doesn't get caught up in it. After all, a tall task remains in the Class C 138-pound division.
"I always dreamed about it," Hughes said. "I always said it, talked about, and everything when I was younger. I don't know if I really truly believed I would be in this position, but I am."
Another Rocket soaring
Hughes isn't the only Syracuse wrestler aiming to repeat as state champion. Senior Caleb Lefferdink is the defending heavyweight champion in Class C.
"He wants to go out and just dominate," Goebel said. "He enjoys it. You can definitely see that in his ability to go and get things done."
Lefferdink, who went 24-22 as a freshman, is 38-0 this season. Helping the three-sport athlete along the way was Matt Clark, a former teammate and three-time state champion. Lefferdink wrestled at 220 as a freshman and Clark wrestled at heavyweight.
"Anytime you can wrestle a state champion for a whole season, it's definitely going to benefit you," Goebel said.