The demands of wrestling are enough to chase away plenty, but that challenge is just what Ireayo Kuku wanted.
The High School South junior did not wrestle in his first year of high school, but came out last year to modest success and has made big strides in his second season.
“My friends were saying how hard it was, so I thought I’d try it out during sophomore year,” Kuku said. “It is hard, but I’m glad because it’s fulfilling after practice. I felt like if they could do it, I could do it and not complain about it.”
Kuku has had no complaints about his development in his newest sport. He played soccer through his freshman year and has played lacrosse for WW-P South, but just took up wrestling last year. He never wrestled before that year.
“He didn’t wrestle as a freshman,” said Pirates head coach Warren Gerstacker. “He had about half a season last year and went 7-7. He’s strong and he has a good instinct for things. He’s learning lots of new stuff. He picks up on it pretty quickly. He’s able to use new techniques the day after you teach them. He has a good natural instinct for the sport.”
Kuku started the season in promising fashion. He won the 182-pound division at the Blue Devils Invitational at Ewing. Kuku pinned the top seed, Rashidi Alleyne of Barnegat, in the semifinals to reach the finals, where he pinned Montgomery’s Alex Ipeker.
“It made me really happy and excited for the year,” Kuku said. “Now I want to see how far I can go with that. It’s also going to keep pushing me. Now I have higher expectations and I don’t want to let anyone down.”
Kuku improved to 8-4 with a pin of redy Alvarado in the Pirates’ 72-12 loss to Trenton on Jan. 18. Kuku will have his chance to show where he stands at the Mercer County Tournament slated for Feb. 1.
“I feel like there’s always room for improvement, but I’m not doing too bad,” he said. “Better than last year.”
It was all new to Kuku last year. He credits his coaches and teammates with his development and gives praise to God for his success.
Kuku is part of a small Pirates team that works hard together. WW-P South has just 10 wrestlers – it takes 14 to fill an entire lineup – and so team wins will be difficult. The Pirates are focused on improving as individuals each day.
In the wrestling room, Kuku works with Franco Valentine, who wrestles at 195 pounds and Pondharmavarman Ponnayiram, who wrestles at 170 pounds, and Carl Alejandro when he was on the team. They all gave him different looks and challenges.
“Two of them are heavier and one’s lighter,” Kuku said. “Varman is very fast and he’s ready to go back at it so that pushes me to keep up with his pace. Franco is strong and very determined and that also pushes me to get better.”
Even his opponents have helped his development. Kuku was surprised to find their assistance.
“There was one kid from East Brunswick who remembered me,” Kuku recalled. “He was very helpful. He told me the things I could improve on. While I was working bottom, I didn’t have as much skill as I do now. He told me ways I could improve on that. I thought that was really interesting. I was shocked he remembered me from last year and what I did wrong and what I did well. When I’m looking at people in my weight class, I don’t underestimate them. I know some people underestimate me.”
Kuku returned this year with a simple goal of trying to better his .500 record of a year ago. He was confident with more training and experience, his results would improve. He feels better equipped this year to handle tougher matches and continues to find way to improve.
“I feel I’ve improved a lot more with technique,” Kuku said. “During matches, I’m able to slow down my thoughts and able to realize more moves I can do because I’m aware of my positioning and my opponent’s positioning. Usually during matches I do not take shots. Hopefully I can become better at taking shots. I rely too much on one thing.”
Gerstacker was happy to get another wrestler in the program, and Kuku came in and exceeded any expectations. He has been able to build on his mild first-year success.
Kuku admits that he was just trying out wrestling last year. He had no idea how well it would go, but now it’s become a focal point among his athletic pursuits.
“I know for lacrosse it was something I did for fun,” Kuku said. “It was a new thing for me coming into high school so I wanted to try that out. I take wrestling much more seriously.”
His efforts are paying off. Kuku gained confidence with his win in the Blue Devils Invitational. It was confirmation that he is moving in the right direction.
The win sets him up to be able to compete better at this year’s Mercer County Tournament. He will still be an underdog but a vastly improved wrestler who could surprise.
“I know about the rapid improvement he’s making,” Gerstacker said. “He keeps getting better every day and putting in the work he needs to put in and he keeps getting after it every match and tournament. Every time he competes, he can end up going as far as he wants to and is willing to take himself.”
Kuku’s resolve and increased commitment to wrestling has bolstered his confidence and his skills. The results are showing on the mat.
“I expected improvement and I know how strong he is,” Gerstacker said. “I know he’s athletic and he’s willing to learn and willing to work hard at it. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. I thought he’d have a pretty successful junior year.”
Kuku is setting an example of the sort of gains that a new wrestler can make with a little hard work and dedication. He’s found another team that he enjoys being a part of, and has become the best of their small, tight-knit team of wrestlers.
“I think it’s really good practice wise,” Kuku said. “We’re all able to push each other. Before practice, we’re able to communicate with each other. We have a real bond. We’re able to joke around. No one is shy. It’s nice.”
Ireayo Kuku took on the challenge of joining the Pirates wrestling team a year ago and has found success in his new sport. It’s difficult, but few things have been more rewarding.
“I just really didn’t want to let down my team,” Kuku said. “I wanted to prove to myself I could do it no matter how hard it is.”