By John Goralski
Zac Murillo attacked his opponent’s leg in the national freestyle semifinals like a hungry crocodile attacking his prey. Murrillo latched onto his foe and began to spin him across the mat in a dizzying death roll. His all-American opponent was helpless against Murillo’s grip, and officials counted out the score in a flurry of points.
Murillo trailed, 4-0, at the start of the opening round but battled back to tie it before the first break. That was his first and only setback on his journey to the championship round at the 2014 ASICS/Vaughan Junior Nationals. Murillo was out for blood.
“It was pretty awesome. As soon as he was able to get to that move, we all knew that he had the match,” said fellow Southington High School wrestler Zach Bylykbashi. “He was down early, but he came back and caught the kid in that move that he’s always so good at hitting, but it was a close match up until that point. He really had an easy ride up until that semifinal match, but he still took care of business to get into the finals.”
Murillo and Bylykbashi were among a small contingent of Connecticut wrestlers to participate at the elite USA Wrestling event in Fargo, N.D., and for the second year in a row Murillo came away with hardware from the event.
Last year, the Southington lightweight scrambled to a second place finish in the elite freestyle competition as an 88-pound cadet. This year, Murillo repeated his trip to the finals as a 100-pound junior, and he did it in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman competitions.
“There’s definitely a change in the style of how you have to wrestle at the junior level, and the competition is much stronger because you are going up against more experienced wrestlers,” said Bylykbashi. “I think he did a good job with his mindset when he went out there. He knew what he wanted to do, and he went out there and wrestled his matches. He got a good draw, and everything kind of fell in his favor.”
For the Southington duo, the national competition marked the end of a grueling five-month training that began at the end of the high school season. Murillo had already medaled in both styles at the Las Vegas Western Junior Regionals in April. He scored a third place finish at a FILA event in May in Akron, Ohio, and it all culminated with the silver medals at the Fargo event.
“It was a good experience. I didn’t do well in Greco last year, so to come back and finish second was amazing. I put in a lot of work, so it felt good to place,” Murillo said. “Everyone’s there to win. Everyone’s there to do what you want to do, so you really have to grind. You just have to grind your way through it and come out on top.”
Murillo’s only losses in either bracket came in the championship bouts with hard-fought decisions to California standout Randon Miranda. For the second year in a row, Murillo secured all-American honors with a second place finish. This time he earned that title in two events, and he still has another year to compete.
“It means a lot, but I’ve always wanted to be the national champ,” he said. “It’s still good to be up there with the best. No one really knows the amount of work that goes into this. All that they see is the stats, but I put a lot into it. You have to manage your school work. You have to work hard. Everything’s a preparation for this.”
Only one other Connecticut wrestler made it to the medal round. Jarod Kosman (Fitch High School) finished fourth place in the 88-pound cadet freestyle competition, but Bylykbashi was the only other one to come close. Bylykbashi blasted past a pair of 120-pounders to finish with a 2-3 record in the junior freestyle competition. His efforts took him one victory from the medal round.
Blue Knight coach Derek Dion said that he was proud of the duo for continuing to work throughout the off-season.
“I can’t tell you how proud of them I am. It’s not just because of their success. It’s because of the work and commitment that they put in,” said the coach. “The commitment that it took for both of those kids is incredible. Since the end of our high school season, they haven’t stopped. It’s been four or five days per week. They’ve gone to camps. There were two preparatory camps before they even went out there. It’s been amazing.”
Both are coming off high school seasons which carried them to the New England championships, and it hasn’t come by accident. Since March, the pair has continued to train five days a week, and that work carried them into the national competition.
Murillo turned heads last year as a cadet. This year, he proved it was no fluke.
“He’s really good. That’s why I grab him as my partner in the high school room,” said Bylykbashi. “We’ve gone at it a couple of times, and I have about 20 pounds on him. We have two different styles, but he still gives me a match because he’s so quick. That’s why I love to go up against him in practice. We have a lot of fun.”
Dion said that it is a family effort. Murillo’s father, an accomplished wrestler himself, has trained his son since he was a child. Murillo’s mother is a fitness trainer that has toned her boy into a well-conditioned warrior. Even his sparring matches against Bylykbashi resemble a sibling rivalry in the way that neither gives in.
“A couple of weeks before they went, I watched them go against each other in the gym,” said Dion. “They were just practicing, but the level that they’re competing at right now is just incredible. They were both great. Their skill level has gotten so good. It’s impressive.”
That’s good news for Southington fans as the boys prepare for their senior seasons with the Southington High School varsity team. This competition is a good litmus test for the varsity competition, but it isn’t a perfect measure.
Freestyle wrestling is closest to the high school folkstyle wrestling with its Olympic throws and takedowns, but the Greco-Roman style prohibits any leg attacks—a staple in Murillo’s arsenal. On the other hand, Murillo’s ability to change styles and continue to have success are a good sign for future success.
The undersized Murillo has finally caught up to the larger opponents, and the national competition pitted him against some of the best. The two silver medals prove that he’s ready for the next challenge.
“Murillo’s so aggressive, and he’s finally wrestling against kids his size,” said Dion. “He’s finally going up against kids within 20 percent of his body weight, and he’s dominating. It’s not like he’s just getting that good. He’s been that good for a long time.”
Now, the two will begin to train for their final season with the Blue Knights. Both have expectations to raise the bar for the high school program, and they both expect to do something that’s never been done before by a Southington High School wrestler. Success at the national event was just a first taste.
“I think this got us the experience of wrestling some really high level kids, and it shows that we can go out and compete with the best kids in the country,” said Bylykbashi. “I think this will give us the confidence and experience to dominate kids when we get to the high school season because the competition level will be nowhere near what we’ve been wrestling over the summer.”
Murillo is clear about his expectations. “I want to win the state open title and the New England title, and I think this is going to help a lot,” he said. “I think I’m ready. I’m more comfortable on my feet now, and I don’t think anybody will be able to stop me up top.”
This is just a taste of things to come…
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.
By John Goralski