Wrestling: Mark Maldonado’s confindence up, hopes high heading into state
When Highland’s Mark Maldonado looked at the bracket for the 75th annual IHSAA state wrestling tournament, his opponent’s name seemed familar.
The 160-pound Maldonado (36-1) meets Carmel’s Ben Krege (31-11) in a first-round matchup at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight.
“I wrestled him at an ISWA state meet in seventh grade, at Huntington North, and pinned him,’’ Maldonado said. “I looked it up, and it was the same guy. It was my first year of wrestling. I thought that was interesting.’’
Interesting, yet Maldonado realizes his match against Krege six years ago doesn’t mean a darn thing now.
Maldonado is riding an emotional high right now after upsetting Lowell’s Kenny Hughes 1-0 in the semifinals of last week’s Merrillville Semistate before beating Bishop Noll’s Damian Lopez 3-1 in the title match.
“He was so excited after beating (Hughes) that he came sprinting off the mat and jumped into my arms,’’ Trojans interim head coach Ben Smithers said. “He caught me off-guard and about tackled me. That was the match he was worried about and the one that took a lot of pressure off him.’’
Maldonado said he won’t overlook Krege, or anyone else he faces at state, knowing the opportunity to stand on the awards stand hinges on his ability to win matches.
“The last couple years, I believed I had a solid shot, but I just didn’t bring it, I guess,’’ Maldonado said. “This year, I was just really ready.’’
Maldonado, who lost in the ticket round to Penn’s Danny Ginter last year, made things much easier for himself at state by winning the semistate title last weekend.
“I set myself up for this weekend,’’ he said. “I like my chances. I just can’t take this guy lightly at all. Even though he has double-digit losses, I just can’t take him lightly. If I can just keep on doing what I’ve been doing — wrestling hard and not making mistakes, I think I’ll eventually end up on the podium.’’
Smithers, who took over as interim coach for the Trojans about three weeks ago when head coach Frank Marciano was suspended for unspecified reasons, believes Maldonado is ready for state.
“He doesn’t let his head get too big,’’ Smithers said. “He takes every match seriously — even if he thinks it’s someone he can beat. I think his chances to place are pretty good as long as he shows up like he did at the regional and semistate.
“I think if Mark wrestles down there, the way he’s been wrestling all season, he should at least place.’’
Asked how he improved since last year, the Trojans standout was definitive.
“I think the biggest thing this year is my confidence level — it’s a lot higher,’’ he said. “I’ve also been taking more shots and looking more active. My defense has been good, and is more solid. I’ve been hard to score on. I think if I can keep that up, I’ll have some success at state.’’
Maldonado claims he’s also become much better on top.
“I’ve been hitting more tilts,’’ he said. “That opens up the match and helps me get an increased margin of victory.’’
Smithers said Maldonado possesses a few other attributes that really help him.
“He’s really smart (3.65 GPA) and it shows in school,’’ he said. “He made the academic all-state team. He’s always adapting and learns quick. He has a real good work ethic. He’s always worked longer after every practice. Even before it was ever mandatory to come to practice during preseason, Mark was always there. He works out a lot. The entire season he’s going to RWA (Region Wrestling Academy) and working out with people.’’
There’s something else Maldonado is very adept at in his matches.
“He’s really good at escaping from the bottom,’’ Smithers said. “I don’t think anybody has actually held him down all season. He usually escapes all the time.’’
Maldonado’s partners in the wrestling room — Cody Kinley (132), Mark Arredondo (152) and Jordan Haapalianen (170) — have tried to give him good looks during practices this season.
Smithers, who wrestled at Merrillville High School under coach Dave Maldonado — no relation to Mark — also gets on the mat and attempts to give his talented senior some tough competition.
“I roll around with him and try to help as much as I can,’’ Smithers said. “The kid’s strong. I’m 200 pounds myself, and he’s moving me around like it’s no problem. I can never do the same thing over and over, I have to change it up, because he knows what to look for from me. He’s smart and always adjusts. If I can keep the score close, he’ll always beat me in overtime.’’
Making it to state is a dream come true for Maldonado.
“Making it there is awesome,’’ he said. “I’m going to wrestle my best, and hopefully wrestle well. We’ll see where that takes me.’’
Of course, Maldonado hopes it takes him to a spot at least somewhere on the awards stand.