By John Goralski
Zac Murillo grabbed hold of his first opponent, drove him into the mat, and rolled him over and over like an alligator in a death spiral. In each of his first four bouts in the national spotlight the Southington wrestler rolled, flipped, and turned his opponent as officials tried to keep up with the scoring.
He wrestled for just over one minute in the first day, and finished with a 3-0 record. It wasn’t until his semifinal match that anybody managed to score on the 88-pound grappler, and he clawed his way into the finals with all but one victory coming by technical fall.
Murillo might not have been crowed a national champion at the 2013 ASICS/Vaughan Cadet National Championships in Fargo, N.D., but the incoming junior became the first Blue Knight to advance to the freestyle championship bout. His second place finish might be the best finish from a Connecticut wrestler at the national meet.
“We’ve had kids go out there before, but we’ve never had anyone place,” said Southington High School wrestling coach Derek Dion. “Connecticut’s only had two kids that I know of in the finals, and he’s one. That tells you how good he is.”
That’s why a small crowd of family, friends, teammates, and wrestling fans crowded into a small room at the back of El Sombrero’s Restaurant on Sunday, July 21 to celebrate Murillo’s rise to the top of the nation’s elite. In just his second appearance at the Fargo competition, Murillo went 6-1 to place second in his division.
“I went up against some of the best guys in the country. I faced kids from Pennsylvania and Minnesota,” Murillo said. It’s just an amazing tournament. I just knew that I wanted to get to the finals so bad. I had set that as a goal, so I just focused on it and got it.”
In 2012 Murillo never made it past the opening day with two losses in his first two attempts, but 2013 was a different story. It took him just 18 seconds to beat Bryton Wichell (Wyoming) in the first round. He beat Dylan Cook (North Carolina) in 42 seconds, and capped the day with a 23 second win over Noah Colehouse (Pennsylvania) to finish the first day 3-0.
“It really boosted my confidence, but I got a really good draw,” he said about the freestyle brackets. “In the past few times, I had some really crappy draws. In [the Greco-Roman competition], I actually drew the kid that finished first in the tournament for my first match. Last year, I drew two all-Americans in my first two matches. This was much better.”
The ‘Fargo’ Tournament, as it’s known among wrestlers, is an annual tournament to crown the best Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestlers in the country and is one of the largest wrestling tournaments in the world. This year, the tournament set records with 4,152 entries over seven divisions. Matches take place on 23 mats in the Fargodome and matches are broadcast internationally and on the web.
“It’s just a great experience,” said Murillo. “You go there, and you meet a lot of good wrestlers. In Connecticut, there aren’t a lot of great competitions, but out there it was just amazing.”
Murillo was far from finished. He started out the second day with a 10-0 tech fall over Dylan Koontz (Wisconsin) and secured his position on the all-American roster with his fifth straight tech fall, an 11-0 win over Taylor Day (Oklahoma).
Zach Bylykbashi was the only other Southington wrestler to take part in the event, and Bylykbashi was the only state wrestler with two wins (2-2) in the Greco-Roman tournament. Murillo went 1-2 in the first tournament but rallied to a 7-1 record in the freestyle event to earn all-American honors.
“He was just really locked in,” Bylykbashi said about his teammate. “I’m just so happy for him. He’s really put in so much work to get there. When you say ‘Fargo’ everyone knows that it’s the biggest wrestling tournament in the world. To say that he took second is such an honor. I’m proud of him.”
It wasn’t until the quarterfinals that the Southington grappler was scored upon, as he opened the third day with a 13-2 win over Brayden Schwalbe (Montana). He went on to beat Brawley Lamer (South Dakota) with a 14-6 decision in the semifinals that advanced him into the championship round.
“Often times, high school kids have that one move that they go to time and time again. They can beat a lot of kids with that move,” said Dion. “It’s not just one or two moves with Zac. It’s positioning, the way he moves, and his aggression. He’s just the complete package. We’re finally getting to see him against kids his size, and he’s shown that he’s one of the best in the country.”
For two years, Murillo has been forced to wrestle bigger kids. As a freshman, Murillo battled to a 7-7 record in Connecticut’s 106 pound high school varsity division but struggled to make the minimum weight against opponents that out-weighed him by almost 20 percent. Last year, as a sophomore, Murillo battled to a 21-14 record and earned a sixth place finish at the Class L tournament against his heavier competition.
In Fargo, he finally entered a tournament on a level playing field, and Murillo took advantage of the opportunity.
“It was an advantage at this tournament because all of the kids just seemed lighter than what I’m used to,” he said. “I’ve learned over the last four months about wrestling guys my size, and to be able to out-muscle kids was a great feeling.”
“Now you can see how good he really is,” said Dion. “He’s so aggressive. He continues to attack. His positions are fantastic, and his changes of direction are just his natural movement. He does it at the right time in the right situation. He flows with the action, and he stays on top of it.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.