Joe Rice only lost 14 times during his entire high school wrestling career.

He lost 10 matches alone when he was 5 years old.

The New Plymouth senior finished off an incredible high school career last month by becoming just the 25th wrestler in Idaho history to win four straight state championships.

Not many would have seen this coming after his rough debut to the sport. But Rice went 44-1 this year and claimed his fourth straight 2A District III title before winning the 2A 138-pound crown. It capped a remarkable four-year high school career that featured a 165-14 record and 89 pins.

For these accomplishments, Rice is the 2017-18 Idaho Press-Tribune’s Sports Stars Wrestler of the Year.

“I’m obviously a lot better now,” Rice laughed. “I’m glad it turned out that way. It’s been a fun journey to say the least. It just goes to show that with hard work and determination, anything can happen.”

However, his storybook ending almost didn’t happen.

During a dual against Ridgevue on Feb. 1, Rice tore four ligaments and bruised the meniscus in his right knee. Remarkably, he still won the match.

But the damage was done.

Rice missed the rest of the regular season and very nearly the entire year, as well. During the week of the 2A District III Tournament, Rice went to Valor Health in Emmett to determine whether or not he could come back for districts and state.

The news was good and Rice was finally given the green light to return.

“The whole thing was very emotional for me,” Rice said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. During the most important time of my wrestling career ever, I couldn’t do anything. It was terrible. I just had to sit in the wrestling room.

“I was very close to not being able to wrestle at state and getting my fourth title. Oh, it could have been bad. I don’t even like thinking about it.”

At districts, a first-round bye and an opponent forfeit in the semifinals directly put him in the finals without having to wrestle a single match. The top-3 automatically go to state. So Rice could have forfeited the match to rest his injured knee.

But after a phone call with his father Matt, Rice gave it a go anyway. It ended up working in his favor with a pin in a little more than 30 seconds for his fourth individual and fourth team district championship in a row.

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The momentum carried over to state. At the Idaho High School State Wrestling Championships at Holt Arena in Pocatello and with a noticeably large knee brace on his right leg, Rice advanced to his fourth straight state final, albeit with a very close call in the semifinals.

Rice forgot his limitations with the injury and reaggravated it after trying a sweep single in the opening period. Compromised, he couldn’t get off bottom in the third period and was nearly turned to his back with an armbar.

But Rice gutted it out for a 7-3 win to set the stage for the historic moment.

He didn’t make that same mistake in the final.

Rice scored a takedown 10 seconds in before hitting another one later in the round. He then locked in a cradle with about 30 seconds remaining and scored some back points but no pin. So Rice tried again with the cradle and this time pinned Aberdeen’s Carson Beck for the history-making feat.

It was, surprisingly, the first time he won a state championship with a pin. The previous three state championships at 98, 106 and 126 pounds from his freshman to junior years, respectively, were all by close decisions.

“The whole team was on the sideline screaming when he was going for the four-peat. We were all yelling at him telling him to ‘get it.’ When we saw it happen, it was almost like the world stood still for a second,” senior Tye Nasker said. “He was easily the best in the state at his weight class and probably for any weight at any size of school.”

The title also made Rice the first wrestler from New Plymouth to win four state titles with the program and the winningest wrestler in school history. His only loss of the season came at the Rollie Lane Invitational on Jan. 6 via a controversial 4-3 defeat to Isaiah Gonzalez of Pasco, Washington in the 132-pound final.

Rollie Lane was virtually the only thing Rice didn’t win in his career with 20 tournament titles during his tenure with the Pilgrims.

“He’s definitely the best wrestler I’ve ever coached at the high school level,” New Plymouth coach Caleb Campbell said. “The thing that made Joe great was that most of the guys he wrestled were better athletes, but he worked so hard and had such impeccable timing on every move that he made these great athletes look like they didn’t belong out there. Just that type of dedication to work and always perfecting his craft made him stand out above everyone else that stepped out on the mat with him.”

After such a prolific career at New Plymouth, the 17-year-old is now looking to compete at the next level. Minot State in North Dakota, Western Wyoming and North Idaho College he said are all potential college destinations.

And with what he’s already done, four championships in college is not out of the realm of possibility.

Just don’t go off the record he had when he was 5.

“I don’t think I would have believed I would go on to win four state titles back then,” Rice joked. “But in all seriousness, it’s been an honor. It means a ton to have my father Matt Rice push me to get better and better every single year, no matter the circumstances.

“It’s nice to have started something at New Plymouth. I feel this is just the beginning for my school and hopefully more kids look at what I did and are ready to put their names on our state championship board.”

Brandon Walton covers Ada County and College of Idaho sports for the Idaho Press.

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