Zachary native and college wrestler Daniel Rittell is always working to improve himself. Whether it’s training with weights, running or focusing on his wrestling technique, he knows there’s always something he can work on to get better.

That’s the nature of his sport. Rittell, the son of local photographer George “Rip” and Jacki Rittell, of Zachary, just completed his sophomore season at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.

He comes from a family of wrestlers — his three brothers all competed as Broncos before him.

“I’ve been around it my whole life with my brothers,” Rittell said. “When I got to high school, I played football and was involved in competitive weightlifting. I didn’t want to wrestle at first. Coach Mo (Mark Moreau) kept asking me to join the team. When I got to my junior year, I quit football and joined the wrestling team. I wish I had started as a freshman.”

He had a steep learning curve, but he was good enough to be Zachary’s first wrestler to earn a scholarship to a four-year college.

“My college coach said it’s good I’m still young because I didn’t develop a lot of bad habits,” Rittell said. “There are a couple of guys on my team who have been wrestling for 18 years, so I had to work harder than them to become better than them. It comes down to who works the hardest.”

Williams Baptist College is a small National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school in northeast Arkansas.

“I love it,” Rittell said. “It feels like a family, not like a school. Everybody has each others’ backs, no matter what.”

Making the transition from high school wrestling to college was difficult, and Rittell said he struggled his freshman year.

“I didn’t do well at all,” Rittell said. “I won a couple of matches here and there ,but got pretty beat up. It was rough.”

So he did what he does — he worked harder. He worked on improving his techniques, his strength and his endurance. That hard work paid off.

His sophomore season, he had a 27-13 match record and earned all-American Midwest Conference honors. He won the gold medal in the 165-pound weight class, and the Eagles won the team title at the six-team conference championship in Hannibal, Missouri.

He later finished second at 165 pounds at the regionals and was one of 10 Williams qualifiers for the national championships in Topeka, Kansas. The Eagles finished just out of the top 10, with Rittell going 2-2 at nationals. He was defeated by teammate Ryan Whittle, ending his season.

“I walked into a couple of moves I shouldn’t have and it cost me the match,” said Rittell, who ranked 12th nationally in his weight class. “I guess I did all right. It was good to see the level of competition, and I got a good feel for it and to see what it was like. I’ve got two more years to win a national championship.”

Like he did last summer, Rittell said he is spending this summer lifting weights as much as he can and running as often as he can. He said if he can’t get to a gym, he does pushups, pull-ups, anything to improve his strength. He’s also working on his technique.

“Summer is crucial for wrestling training,” Rittell said. “Champions are made in the summer.”

Nine of the Eagles’ 10 national qualifiers are expected to be back next season. Rittell said he expects they’ll be ranked in the top five.

When he returns to school in August, preseason training will start immediately. The wrestling season will begin in October, with the conference meet in February followed by the regionals and nationals in March.

“We’re always expecting to do better,” he said.

Rittell recently led his first wrestling camp, the Daniel Rittell Wrestling Camp, with Moreau at Zachary High June 20-23. He said about 20 campers, in grades sixth through 12th grade and mostly from Zachary, participated and he was pleased with the first effort. There were two sessions, one in the morning for all campers, then after lunch, a two-hour intense session for wrestlers who were more advanced.

“It was pretty good since it was the first year,” Rittell said. “I’m going to expect more next year. We focused on different fundamentals each day. Every day in the afternoon, we had live wrestling followed by short intense workouts.

“It was pretty fun, and I think they learned a lot. They asked a lot of questions because they wanted to get better.”

That’s something Rittell certainly knows about.

Send sports news, photos and stats to Howard Arceneaux at harceneaux@theadvocate.com.