After a series of hurdles during a trying senior season, he's off to wrestle for Ottawa University in Kansas

It’s nothing new for a wrestler to stare a challenge in the face, excited for the opportunity.

But for Hunter Orbaker, the challenges of his senior season were anything but ordinary. On the mat and off. So maybe that’s why his smile is so big these days because after going through what he went through, he’s off to Ottawa, Kansas, this week after signing a scholarship offer to wrestle for the Braves.

“I’m excited to go,” he said last week in the wrestling room at Whitman. “It should be fun.”

Orbaker is believed to be the first wrestler from Whitman to be recruited and sign a national letter of intent. He’ll wrestle at 125 pounds for the Braves, an NAIA school.

To be sure, Orbaker is excited about the opportunities ahead of him as an accounting major and wrestler at Ottawa. But his path to Ottawa certainly tested his mettle.

Rewind to late last fall, the start of his senior season for the Wildcats. He was a senior captain for the team with big expectations. The morning of his season-opening match, he woke with some discomfort and figured it was nerves. He lost that opener, “by two or three points to a kid I should have beat,” he said.

The following day in practice, the discomfort remained and the pain was pronounced during mat returns in practice. He described his pain to a teammate, who mentioned he’d felt similar pain, only to discover he had appendicitis.

Two days later, Orbaker had surgery for appendicitis.

“I thought I was done,” said Orbaker. “I was ready to punch the doctor.”

But about three weeks later, Orbaker was back on the mat, eager to redeem the first half of the season he’d lost and eager to reach his goal of becoming a Section V champion.

Missing the first half of the season put Orbaker in a tough spot because, as coach Terry Lucero put it, he missed out on at least 10 potential victories. So Orbaker came into the Class BB Tournament with a record of 14-8, which left him unseeded. 

Orbaker left the tournament with a 15-9 record, eliminated in the second round but that was hardly the worst news of the day. About an hour after the matches ended, he received news that his grandfather had passed away earlier that day.

Not long after that, he learned that the Air Force, in which he’d been part of a delayed entry program, decided to discharge him because of the appendicitis.

“It’s been quite the year,” said Orbaker. “But I know (the Air Force) had to cover themselves, too.”

But this is where the challenge part comes in. And it’s where Lucero believes Orbaker is on a path to greatness.

“His transformation from three years ago to now has been because of his work ethic,” the fourth-year Whitman coach said. “He has the desire. You can’t teach heart.”

There’s no questioning the magnitude of the challenges Orbaker has tackled. And even after his discharge from the Air Force, where his ultimate goal was to fly, he found himself scrambling. 

He had not taken his SATs and had no college applications to speak of. On June 4, during final exams for his regular courses, he took the SAT and scored 1160. At the same time, he was in contact with Ottawa coach Kevin Andres, who was recruiting Orbaker hard. 

Orbaker took his official visit to Ottawa the week before graduation and knew then that the small university was the right fit.

“It’s a great honor for a hard-working kid,” said Whitman Athletic Director Paul Lahue. “He loves wrestling.”

That’s why Lucero is so happy for Orbaker, and excited for what this can mean for the entire Whitman program. 

“He’ll be able to take his ability and improve because he’ll be able to specialize and hone in on his skills,” said Lucero. “He’s battled back and has some things he still wants to accomplish.”