An All-American with heart

An All-American with heart


Southington’s Zach Murillo did not put wrestling on the back burner when the scholastic season ended last winter.

After finishing fourth at the State Open and fifth in New England, he took a two-week break before starting his training regimen with John Knapp and his KT Kidz program in Rocky Hill. Knapp’s credo is, “Those who stay will be champions.”

As Knapp readily admits, staying is both mentally and physically demanding, but Murillo stayed the course. With Knapp in his corner, Murillo left the USA Junior National Championships last weekend in Fargo, N.D., with All-American credentials in two different tournaments.

Murillo, wrestling in the 100-pound class among competitors 16-to-18-years-old, had a prominent place on the podium in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman events. He placed second to Randon Miranda of Quartz Hill, Calif.

No other Connecticut wrestler has ever attained double All-American status, yet his initial thought was how close he came to being a national champion.

“I wanted to win a full title but I know what I accomplished is a good,” said Murillo, a senior who will captain coach Derek Dion’s Blue Knights for the second time this winter.

Murillo has traveled the nation pursuing USA competition since compiling a 39-8 scholastic mark, generally wrestling against competitors who significantly outweighed him.


In the freestyle tournament, he scored technical-fall wins (by 10 points or more) in the first round and in the quarterfinals. His win in the second round was by fall in 1:04. He edged Mason Naifeh of Oklahoma, before losing by tech fall to Miranda, 14-3.

“He got caught in a trap arm,” Knapp said. “It was a 4-2 match, but once you get caught, it’s over.”

Knapp explained that Miranda locked Murillo’s arm against his body, enabling him to score readily.

In Greco-Roman style, which precludes any leg attacks, Murillo won by fall in the second round and semifinals and by tech fall in the quarters. Again he confronted Miranda, also a folk-style champion in USA circles, and lost by tech fall.

“We don’t train as much in Greco-Roman, just one day a week,” Knapp said. “For Zach to make the finals preparing just one day a week is really impressive. It’s not his style. He’s a freestyle kid. I thought [Miranda] was better in Greco-Roman but Zach could beat him in freestyle.”

Murillo agreed that he prefers freestyle, but competing in Greco-Roman has made him a better wrestler, and there is little he won’t do to get better.

He went to the Las Vegas Western Junior Regionals in mid-April and took second in Greco-Roman and third in freestyle. In May, he took third at the FILA Cadet Nationals in Akron, Ohio.


“I feel good, although my body feels the wear and tear,” he said. “For four months, I’ve eaten very clean. No candy, no soda. You make sure you get a lot of protein.

“For the Cadets, I had to cut down to 92 pounds, which wasn’t fun but I had to do it.”

All wrestlers undergo tests to determine how low they can safely go. Murillo found he could go as low as 90, but the regimen is painstaking.

“It was a struggle,” he said. “A lot of running. It wasn’t fun, but I’m very proud of myself for doing it. When you cut weight like that, it’s all mental. Most people wouldn’t want to do it.

“I got to Ohio a pound over. I ran the stairs at the stadium to get the pound off. I was exhausted but I’m glad I did it.”

The weigh-in was the night before the competition began. After he made the grade, he ate a healthy meal and gained 12 pounds in 12 hours.

Knapp, whose brother Jude coaches South Windsor High, noticed a change in Murillo as he began preparation for the trip to Fargo. Murillo went to the Nationals after his sophomore year and finished second in the 88-pound Cadet freestyle to gain All-American status.

“My brother noticed that something had changed,” John Knapp said. “Zach came in with a purpose. He did his work, going through camp and getting ready. He was all business. His goal was to be an All-American and nothing was going to stop him. He was extremely dedicated. You could see the focus.”


Murillo is equally focused on wrestling for a Division I college.

His wrestling skills unquestionably make him a viable candidate and sitting 39th in his class proves that he attacks his studies with the same tenacity that he locks in a single-leg takedown. However, there are roadblocks.

“I have a lot of weight to gain,” he said. The lowest weight class in the college ranks is 125 pounds.

“I’ve always been around 100, but I definitely want to attain that. I want to go Division I, and getting to the finals in both freestyle and Greco-Roman will help me in getting recruited.”

The biggest barrier is one over which he has no control. Opportunities, particularly at the Division I level and especially in Connecticut, are very slim. Sacred Heart University is the lone Division I program in the state.

John Knapp stressed just how much Murillo’s national accomplishments resonate with college coaches compared to state and regional competitions waged under scholastic administration.

For example, Murillo’s fifth-place finish in the New Englands hung on losses to Carlos Cardona, the Rhode Island state champion. Murillo competed as an undersized 106-pounder and couldn’t overcome Cardona’s size advantage. In the nationals, he wrestled in a 100-pound class that does not exist in high school competition.

“Zach wrestled against kids his weight. That was the big difference,” Knapp said. “Fargo is number one. It’s the best competition in the country. State champions come here and go 0-2. … The first question college coaches ask kids is, ‘How did you do in Fargo?’ You don’t even have to place. Just be there, beat somebody or have a great match.”


As Murillo grapples with his post-scholastic destiny, his next challenge will be leading the Blue Knights to league and state recognition en route to standing atop the podium at the Class LL meet, the Open and New Englands, but first … .

“I have a five-week break and I’m going to enjoy it,” he said. “I’ll work out in the gym, take a week off and start lifting. I’m going to just hang out with my friends, enjoy being outside and playing video games. I’m going to ease my mind off wrestling because it does take a toll on your mind.”

He would like to lead Southington back to the prominence the program once enjoyed, but recognizes the challenge lies well beyond his own means.

The Knights loom powerful in the light weights, but Dion will be hard-pressed to come up with anywhere near the equal in the middle and upper weights. Along with Murillo, State Open placewinner and fellow captain Zach Bylykbashi was at 120 last year. Austin Abacherli turned in a sterling freshman season, placing in the LLs at 113.

Last year, with the football season stretching out until just six days before Christmas, the wrestling season was compromised. Bylykbashi has given up football to concentrate on wrestling and the team will rely less on football players.

“We’re going to have a much better season,” Murillo said. Given his fortitude, who’s to doubt him?


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