Isaiah Vela grinned Saturday at the suggestion he has been putting on a St. Charles East wrestling singlet for longer than four seasons.
His poise out of the gate made it easy to overlook Vela’s youth.
A fourth-place finisher as a freshman 119-pounder at the Class 3A state meet, Vela delivered on the slight hype that preceded him into the Saints’ mat room.
He returned to Champaign just once after that, however, increasing the urgency for a final pursuit of the podium that begins with the South Elgin Regional on Feb. 8.
“I have big goals for myself. I’ve been having big goals for the past four years,” Vela said. “But this year, I’ve really stepped up my game. I’m ready for state.”
Now competing at 138, Vela improved to 33-3 with a three-match sweep at the Upstate Eight Conference tournament at Elgin this past weekend.
He earned falls in his first two bouts before defeating Waubonsie Valley’s Jimmy Davis, 6-3, in the championship match, benefiting from his aggressiveness on the edge.
Vela’s individual title was one of six for the Saints, who won the UEC team title for the second straight season. Vela spotted such potential in the offseason – in both himself and the team – which spurred him to a more vocal role than before.
Vela figures there wasn’t much to trumpet about an injury-plagued sophomore year. A 37-win junior season in which he advanced to state at 132 but was eliminated in wrestlebacks reignited the conversation.
“Senior year, I don’t want to say my whole mentality changed, but it’s a little nod saying it’s my last year,” Vela said. “I push everybody in the room as a captain, as returning varsity. So I just try to do whatever I can do to make my team better and myself better.”
Yes, it’s possible to get a few words in between the usual fare of “Disturbed” or rap songs that blare during Saints practices.
“As a senior, Isaiah’s really picked it up. I would say this is probably his best year,” said classmate Jake Mende, the UEC champion at 145. “Most of us guys were wrestling together since we were little kids, and now that we’re all together senior year, you know, this really means a lot for us.”
Saints coach Jason Potter increased the offseason emphasis on weight training, which especially benefited Vela.
After swinging between 132 and 138 as a junior, Vela will stay put at 138, where he has more bulk than many opponents.
Saints starters believe they have a mental edge entering bouts, too. After East went 9-2 in the final round at conference – the team also produced two third-place finishers and one fifth-place wrestler – there might be something to that notion.
“Just as a whole, I think it was a great performance to finish matches and train through stuff, and we weren’t satisfied sitting through little leads, trying to hang on,” Potter said. “In the middle of the year, you’ve got guys hanging on to one-point leads and not continuing to wrestle.”
Without stepping on Potter’s feet, that’s the kind of stuff Vela found himself policing in the early season.
“When kids are slacking, you know, I keep telling them to push themselves,” he said. “It’s what you do in practice that will show on the mat.”
Vela’s losses – twice to Marist senior Mario Leveille, once to St. Rita senior Mike Falco – came against athletes who are part of different sectionals. It’s likely Vela would have to avenge those defeats in a possible state tournament berth before turning his attention to uncertain college plans.
Vela knew as much as he assessed the sting of each bout. He has learned much more. Four seasons aren’t quite 10, but they’re more than enough to harden someone.