Nottingham’s Josh Almanzar finished fourth in the county tournament and third in districts last year. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Coach Jason Marasco recalled the first day Josh Almanzar walked into the Nottingham High wrestling room as an inexperienced freshman; weighing over 200 pounds with hair down to his shoulders.

“I’m thinking, ‘Awww here we go; one of these guys,’” Marasco said with a laugh. “Man, he took a lot of beatings; in the room, not so much on the mat. I’m like, ‘Hopefully this guy lasts,’ because we always need big guys.”

Almanzar not only lasted, he proved he was not “one of those guys.” He has gradually become a quality wrestler and is being counted on by Marasco for big things in his senior year. Last year, in his first full season of varsity wrestling, Almanzar went 22-10 with 14 pins at 170 pounds. He finished fourth in the Mercer County Tournament and advanced to the regionals with a third-place finish at districts.

It was one of those non-surprising surprises, for lack of a better term.

“We kind of saw it coming but we didn’t realize he was gonna turn it on like he did,” Marasco said. “By the end of the season we were counting on him to win every single match. At the beginning of the season it was just, ‘Go out there and try your best.’ By the end of the season it was “We need you to win, we need you to pin this kid’ and he did. He bought in as a 10th grader, and he believes in the process.”

Almanzar not only believes in it, he absolutely loves it after reaching regionals.

“I’d never been that far into the tournament,” he said. “Just being there was like ‘Wow!’ It really changed the way I viewed wrestling. After the season ended I was sad because it was over. I can’t wait to get back. I’m so happy that the season is here and I’m ready to go right through.”

Through to where?

“I have plans for big things,” Almanzar continued. “Last year I didn’t think I would get as far as I did. Knowing my ability now, I’ve been training, I’ve gotten better. This year I plan to win districts, win the county, place at regions and the end goal is to make it to states.”

A big influence has been classmate Jerry Andaluz. The two have been long-time friends and workout partners. They both had standout seasons at linebacker on the Northstars football team this past fall, and Almanzar watched with pride as his buddy qualified for the state tournament last year.

“Me and Jerry, we’re like one in the same,” Almanzar said. “His mentality is very inspiring. He knows what he wants and he does it. Me, when I was younger, I was a little lazy. But me and Jerry have been working out together since freshman year. His growth influences my growth and seeing him go to states just really changed my mind, changed my ideas.

“It was really awesome to see someone I grew up with go as far as he dreamed about. He told me one time he had a dream to go to states, and he made it. And I have that dream now.”

The dream started as a freshman, when one of the Northstar football coaches suggested that Almanzar go out for wrestling in order to help him with football. He described himself as “short, very awkward, and if you saw any pictures I don’t look anything like I did then.”

Almanzar was immediately gripped by the sport, however, which made him want to shed some weight (and hair).

“Going to that first practice, it was crazy, it was such a cool thing to see,” he said. “Just being with the program was great. I didn’t get to wrestle a lot because I had a concussion. But just seeing my friends wrestle and even the varsity kids ahead of me, like Jon Jacobs going to states, it just motivated me.”

He began to lift more and eat less but only dropped five pounds heading into his sophomore year. He wrestled mostly on the JV and went 1-1 in varsity matches. The summer prior to their junior year, Almanzar and Andaluz went to All Heart Academy to work with renowned coach Dan Flounders. The two also wrestled in a tournament down the shore.

Almanzar had no idea how much that summer helped until he got back on the mat last winter.

“I didn’t really think I could wrestle on the varsity level, I was still a little scared,” Almanzar said. “I didn’t think I could throw a toss in there and add moves; but doing them in matches just made me gain confidence.”

Suddenly, Almanzar became a new wrestler.

“He was starting to surprise himself,” Marasco said. “He beat some kids that we didn’t think he could beat and once that happens the confidence starts to go through the roof. He’s confident. He feels that when he steps on the mat, he’s got a good chance to beat anybody.”

The coach feels that Almanzar has a shot to make states but says he needs to jump levels.

“I think he’s got what it takes,” Marasco said. “He was a seven out of 10 last year, he’s got to get up to a nine. It’s gotta start in here (the wrestling room). Him and Jerry and a group of about four of them are killing themselves going super hard.”

When it comes to moving up the levels, Marasco said it all has to do with the mindset.

“He’s gotta continue to believe in himself,” the coach said. “Whenever there’s a big match, he kind of psyches himself out. In the county tournament last year I think he was in the semifinals but he didn’t wrestle the way he wrestled in the previous matches. There was another match he was winning and he lost focus and he got tossed. He’s gotta wrestle for six minutes.”

One great thing that happened last year is that Almanzar got his mom on his side. When he initially started the sport, she worried about him getting hurt and would not go to the matches. But when she began hearing the news of his success, the outlook changed.

“I think she thought, ‘Oh maybe he might do something,” Almanzar said with a laugh. “Now she’s always like, ‘I don’t want you to get hurt, I want you to protect yourself and bring home gold medals.’ It’s another thing that drives me more. It’s nice to see when your mother or anyone in your family is there to support you. She’s never been there for wrestling but plans to come this year. Just another match to light the fire.”

Another flame comes from last year’s trip to the regionals, which taught Almanzar the need to be aggressive at all times on the mat. He has been working on his shot and moves on top in order to go at his opponent rather than sit back and defend.

Almanzar is looking to be back at 170 this year. He started out at 220 and 195 in his early years, which was not to his liking, but his girth destined him to be an upper weight. He is now a lean 180 and looking good.

“I’m planning to go 170 this year,” he said. “That weight class feels comfortable. Kids aren’t too tall or wide; or bigger or stronger than me. It’s like my Goldilocks weight class. It feels just right.”

Everything about the sport feels right to Almanzar, just as it does in the classroom. A member of the National Honor Society, he has a 3.57 grade point average and is looking into Temple, Rutgers and the University of Tampa. While he would like to wrestle in college, academics will be Almanzar’s first priority as he is looking into being an athletic trainer.

“I really love sports and want to stay in that field as an athlete or a trainer,” Almanzar said. “Being in football, wrestling, it just changed my mindset. It made me grow up; especially wrestling.”

An Marasco could not be prouder.

“Josh is great, just a really good kid,” the coach said. “A lot of the kids on the team look up to him. He’s just a great leader.”

A leader whose example says it all.