By JOHN GORALSKI
On Saturday, Feb. 7, Zack Murillo deflected his opponent’s first attack with the flair of a bullfighter and countered with a move of his own. Southington’s 106-pounder pushed his opponent face first into the mat and started to apply a relentless pressure.
It didn’t seem to matter that the New England Wrestling Championship crowd was favoring the Massachusetts champion in the North Andover gym. Connecticut’s Class LL and state open champion wasn’t going to give the audience any chance to affect the outcome.
“I felt confident as soon as he blocked that shot,” said Blue Knight wrestling coach Derek Dion. “[Murillo] went after him. We talked all week about wrestling through transitions and shot, re-shot. He came off on the re-shot and got really deep on the leg. He was able to capitalize and pull a little bit of magic at the end to get him onto his back.”
It happened in a blur. The Southington senior locked Tyngsboro’s Kevin Morris by the leg and scrambled into position. Murillo wrangled onto both his opponent’s legs, picked him up, and stumbled forward as if they were competing in a Fourth of July wheelbarrow race.
At the edge of the circle, Murillo paused, flipped Morris onto his back, and cradled him into a pin.
“I needed to be aggressive. Especially in the finals, kids can be a little bit timid. I knew that I had to get out and work my pace and work my moves,” Murillo said. “It was actually a freestyle move that I learned over the summer. I had him by the legs. I basically took my arm up and tossed it. That leaves his leg right there (points to his left) and his head down there (points to his right). That’s how I snatched the cradle.”
Murillo seemed to take Morris by surprise after he failed at his first shot. Morris half-heartedly attempted another one, and Murillo stepped in to control the action. It was much different than their previous meeting, during the winter holiday break, where Morris used his size to outlast Murillo in a tight decision.
In the rematch, Murillo wasn’t about to give his Massachusetts nemesis a chance. Other than one attack, it was all Murillo. In just 1 minute, 31 seconds, Murillo went from underdog to New England champ.
With the victory, Murillo became the first Southington wrestler to capture a New England title.
“I’m so happy for him,” said Dion. “We’re just so proud of him. It was four years of just an amazing lot of work and dedication. He deserved to go out like this in his high school career. He’s an amazing kid.”
Murillo said that he’s been focused on this goal since last season when he medaled at both Connecticut championships and scored fifth place in New Englands as a junior.
“Over the past year, I’ve been writing down my goals in a book,” he said. “I wanted to win New Englands. I wanted to win Class LLs, and I wanted to win opens, and that’s what I did.”
It wasn’t easy. As the Connecticut state open champion Murillo earned a bye in the opening round, but he narrowly escaped the second round with a hard-fought, 3-2 decision.
Murillo scored a takedown in the first period against the No. 3 seed from Massachusetts. He scored an escape at the start of the third period to build a 3-0 lead and played it safe down the stretch to advance into day two.
“He wrestled a little tight, but he’s been in a hundred huge tournaments,” said Dion. “He knows how to matriculate through and get into the finals. That just comes from repetition, dedication, and hard work. Wow. I’m just so happy for him.”
Murillo carried that momentum into the second day with a 5-3 decision in the quarterfinals over Maine’s champion, Cody Craig. Once again, Murillo took an early lead (5-0) and held on for the win.
In the semifinals, Murillo dismantled the No. 2 seed from Massachusetts in a plodding, 6-0 win. Then, he dominated in the championship bout.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for this. I came into the high school at 80 pounds, but now I’m up here on top of the podium at New Englands.”
He wasn’t the only one to taste success, either. Zach Bylykbashi continued his unlikely postseason rally with a 2-2 record in the 132-pound division. He rallied through the first day with an 11-4 decision and a second period pin before losing a decision to start the second day and getting eliminated just one round from a New England medal.
“It was a heartbreak for him, but he’s a stud,” said Dion. “Everybody here has been training like pit bulls for four months, and he only had two weeks to try to catch up. Two weeks before the end of the season, he was walking around in a sling. To get here and battle, to come within one point of a podium, is incredible.”
Despite having just two wrestlers at the competition, the six combined wins pushed Southington into the top 15 against 169 programs from six different states. Vermont champion Mt. Anthony scored 122.5 points with 12 wrestlers to out-score Newtown (84) and Fairfield Warde (69) for the overall team title. Southington (32) tied a trio of wrestlers from Pinkerton, N.H. to finish 14th overall.
“So much goes into this tournament. Everybody that makes it here is so good,” said Dion. “It takes just a little bit of magic and a lot of hard work.”
The competition marked the end of Bylykbashi’s decorated high school career. Now, Murillo has to consider continuing onto the 26th Annual National High School Coaches Association national tournament in Virginia Beach, Va. on March 27-29.
“I’m thinking about it, but it’s been a long season,” said the New England champion. “My body’s aching, and I just need to get some rest.”
No matter what he decides, Murillo has nothing left to prove. He will graduate as one of Southington’s 30 Class LL champions. He holds one of five Blue Knight state open titles. Southington has graduated wrestlers that have gone onto college all-American lists, but Murillo is the only one with a New England title.
“He’s been something special since he walked into our door. This is just the icing on the cake,” said Dion. “Nobody’s been a New England champion before. He gets his own banner…for now.”