Unlike many quality wrestlers, the sport is not a true passion for Isaiah Gonzalez. It’s just something he does for fun.
It stopped being fun last year, so Gonzalez stopped doing it. Fortunately for the Robbinsville High wrestling team, he is back to enjoying himself whole-heartedly on the mat this season.
“Missing last year definitely made me more hungry,” he said.
He and the Ravens are both eating well this year. As of Jan. 22, Robbinsville was 16-2 and Gonzalez was doing his part. The senior 120-pounder was 21-1 with nine pins and five technical falls.
“He’s wrestling great,” coach Sean Flynn said. “He came right back, had no rust. He’s got great workout partners in the room, we have a young freshman, Drake Torrington, who he works out with every single day. Those guys push each other so hard.
“We’re super excited about how he’s wrestling. He’s so physically gifted, athletic, great hips, great body awareness, and a strong, strong, strong kid pound per pound. One of the strongest kids in our room. So that match up alone, wrestling at 13 or 20, it’s a huge advantage with him.”
It is definitely a far cry from last year. After wrestling sporadically for the varsity as a freshman, Gonzalez took second in districts and qualified for regionals in his sophomore year.
But five matches into his junior campaign, the New York City transplant just wasn’t interested in wrestling.
“There were some things going on outside of the school; and I had to focus on school work, I had really bad grades last year,” he said. “I definitely regretted it. I should have stayed and just pushed through the school work, but that’s the way it is. And it definitely paid off. My grades shot up.”
Although it was his first year as the RHS coach, Flynn could definitely tell something was not right with his lightweight.
“He wasn’t really doing well at school,” Flynn said. “He didn’t seem really happy in the room. He just seemed a little bit off. He just didn’t seem like himself.”
That’s because he was not himself.
“I wasn’t focused at all,” Gonzalez said. “My mind was in a totally different place during that time. I wasn’t really focused and I wasn’t motivated so I decided to let it go for a little bit and then come back to it.”
Gonzalez did not totally abandon the team. He would attend matches and root for the Ravens. Sitting on the sidelines never really bothered him.
“I mean, I’m not really an angry type of person, so I kind of enjoyed watching it,” he said. “I could watch matches for hours. Wrestling isn’t really a love sport for me, it’s just this thing I like to do to get out all my feelings and frustrations. It’s more a fun thing.”
Flynn and Gonzalez still developed a good relationship by the end of the school year, but the coach was not about to question Gonzalez or pressure him into coming back.
“I let him do his thing, take his time, let him do what he wanted to make sure the decision was right for him,” Flynn said. “I never feel like you get a lot out of a guy that you beg, or you force to come back out. When they do it on their own terms and make the decision for themselves, then you get a lot out of them.”
By the start of summer, Gonzalez was all in. He and Ravens assistant Dan Hughes, who is in Gonzalez’s weight range, began working out and dedicating themselves to getting ready for Gonzalez’s senior season.
‘He does everything by example, does everything the right way and he’s been great on the mat, great off the mat.’
Robbinsville opened with the TCNJ Invitational, and there were plenty of eyes on Gonzalez to see how much the layoff affected him.
“I felt pretty good, but I didn’t know how I was gonna start,” he said. “I’d been training really hard.”
Despite his long stretch of inactivity, Gonzalez did not put any added pressure on himself.
“Every time before a match I have to put some confidence into my head, but I need some nervousness to get ready too,” he said. “I’m always nervous before a match. It gets my adrenaline going.”
He got it going all right, as Gonzalez won the first tournament gold medal of his career. That kick-started a senior season that makes it appear he had never been away.
Gonzalez’s success is even more remarkable considering he never wrestled until eighth grade. And even that almost never happened.
For some reason, he signed up for both basketball and wrestling at Pond Road Middle School. To this day, he has no idea how that happened. But he had played basketball since age 5 and showed up at the gym. The coach checked his notes, noticed he had also signed up for another sport and most likely could not ignore the fact Gonzalez was 5-foot-5.
“He said, ‘Don’t play basketball, go wrestle,’” Gonzalez said, laughing at the memory. “He just sent me out of the gym. He didn’t even get to look at me play. I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ So now my basketball skills are down the drain.”
He actually had experience in UFC and karate, but none in wrestling.
“I had no idea what it even was,” he said. “I had no moves at all.”
Gonzalez learned quickly and blossomed during his sophomore year. He also made some money that season, but still hasn’t seen a dime of it. During one match, his sister Samantha—who was in 7th grade at the time and is now the Ravens manager—yelled out during a match that she would give Isaiah $10 if he pinned his opponent.
“I pinned the guy, but I still have not gotten that 10 bucks,” Gonzalez said. “She’s crazy. It’s kind of funny. She’s loud, and I hear her. Sometimes I’ll catch myself laughing during the match. Some of the stuff she says has nothing to do with a match. She’ll be like ‘Just get him!’”
Whatever she is yelling seems to be working. Of course, Gonzalez’s skills and savvy have a bit to do with it as well.
“He’s really well balanced,” Flynn said. “He’s solid on his feet offensively and defensively, he’s hard to score on because of his strengths. When he gets to somebody’s legs he usually finishes right away. He’s really good on top, he rides hard, he’s turned a lot of guys. He’s pinned quite a few guys, and he’s scoring a ton of points for us in matches.”
Gonzalez is helped by the fact he can wrestle several different styles. After he feels out his opponent, he will decide which way to go.
“I play it by ear,” he said. “I do step by step, and then whatever my opponent likes to wrestle, I figure out what he’s doing, play to his style then play to my style a little bit and I see what he doesn’t like.”
At the rate he has been going, Gonzalez seems poised to challenge for a Mercer County Tournament title (he finished a disappointing fourth as a sophomore) and a possible state berth. Whether or not that happens, his comeback has been impressive in more ways than just wins and pins.
“He does everything the right way,” Flynn said. “We don’t decide on our captains ‘til opening weekend, and he’s one of hardest working guys in the room and he’s now one of our captains. He does everything by example, does everything the right way and he’s been great on the mat, great off the mat. It’s been a pleasure to have him back.”
It’s been a pleasure for Gonzalez, as well, as he is getting exactly what he wants from the sport.
“I’m definitely having fun again,” he said.