The passion for his sport and a burning commitment to fulfill his goals have propelled former Southington wrestler Zach Bylykbashi to success at Division III Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Bylykbashi graduated from Southington last spring after a dislocated elbow kept him out of the Blue Knights’ lineup for most of the winter. He came back for the postseason to finish second in Class LL and the State Open at 120 pounds, losing in both finals to Cross Cannone of Trumbull. He ended his senior year at 19-5 and his career at 101-35.
Bylykbashi was All-CCC four times, placed in Class LL three times and was twice an Open runner-up. Away from the high school mat, he participated with Connecticut’s USA Wrestling squad that ended with trips to the Nationals in Fargo, N.D.
The experience prepared him well for the college circuit. Bylykbashi, wrestling at 133 pounds, is 26-4. He ranks third in Division III in technical falls (7) and leads the Generals in takedowns with 60.
“He’s been easy on me as a coach,” WLU coach Nathan Shearer said. “The phrase I use is authentic leader. He is focused, driven and internally motivated, and uses those actions to dictate what he does. We try to guide him, but he has a clear vision. He’s very regimented and sticks to his plan, whether it’s school, wrestling, nutrition or his workouts. I haven’t seen him veer off it yet. He’s having a tremendous season.”
Bylykbashi’s accomplishments place him in high esteem with a program that has been running continuously since 1921.
“We had a senior last year who broke our single-season win record and Zach’s on pace to break that,” Shearer said. “The next couple of weeks our schedule includes three guys in the top 10 of Division III, so it will tighten up on him a little, but he’s having that type of season. It’s one of the best freshman seasons in WLU history.”
Transitioning to college wrestling is an arduous task, but one that Bylykbashi has embraced in addition to managing a challenging academic load and adjusting to life far from home. He visited WLU (6-7) during his junior year and found his direction.
“Going away was the big thing,” he said. “It was probably the farthest school that I was being recruited hard by. That concerned me, but after my visits I felt totally comfortable.
“It was the best decision I ever made, but it’s not easy. It’s very time-consuming and the academics are hard, but I’m well-regimented, so it’s turned out fine. If you’re not well-regimented, it can be a slippery slope, so I have to stay on the path.”
The adjustment necessary to translate high school success into college victories can be defined in several ways. Relatively few Connecticut wrestlers even attempt to make the leap. Wrestling is so much bigger in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states.
“You go to a high school tournament and the first few kids you’re able to pin in the first period. The matches are not as difficult, as opposed to college where everybody has done what you’ve done,” Bylykbashi said. “Mentally, it’s an adjustment to be willing to embrace that.
“Connecticut wrestling has improved. I think we’re making strides, but the depth of talent is far greater in other states. Just about anybody we wrestle comes from places like New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They don’t have the biggest accomplishments, but they’re very talented because they’re coming from places where it’s very hard to place in the state tournament.”
Shearer can corroborate that based on his recruiting parameters.
“You take Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and New Jersey, where wrestling is more ingrained. It’s the thing to do,” he said. “Where I grew up [in the Cleveland area], we wrestled in front of packed gyms. We’d get more people than football or basketball games. It was easy to want to be in the youth programs. For Zach, there are areas in Connecticut where they don’t even have it.”
Bylykbahi’s participation at the high school Nationals for three years was a major benefit in his recruitment.
“When you place in Fargo, that’s a consensus national ranking,” Shearer said. “It’s the gold standard. If you place out there, you’re not looking at [Division III schools].”
Bylykbashi put in his time to gain such respect.
“I trained for this since I was a sophomore, traveling every weekend [after the high school season],” he said. “I was on the Connecticut Nationals team three years in a row. I took the initiative. I wrestled good kids to prepare myself for what I’m doing.”
Zach to Zack
Bylykbashi’s Southington teammate Zack Murillo also wrestles in Division III, but stayed closer to home. Murillo, the Class LL, State Open and New England Open champion last year at 106 pounds as a senior, wrestles at 125 for Wesleyan (7-5) and coach Drew Black.
“I really like where I am right now,” Murillo said. “I like going home on weekends. I’m doing well in school, which is always a good thing. Everything’s ramped up, so I have very busy days.”
Wesleyan forfeited at 125 throughout the 2014-15 campaign so filling the slot was a recruiting priority. Murillo (5-5) is vying with Dylan Jones, a wiry freshman from Portland, Oregon, for the starting position.
“We have two great wrestlers at 125. It was a major emphasis in our recruiting,” Black said. “Teams around the country are struggling to find 125’s. Both wrestlers, as all freshman do, are adjusting to college wrestling. We wrestle both guys at the weight.”
Byklykbashi and Murillo met a common foe this season. Murillo dropped a 10-3 decision to Nick DiPierro of the University of Scranton at the Rochester Institute of Technology Invitational on December 5 in the 125-pound weight class. Bylykbashi scored an 8-4 win over DePierro at 133 during the Jim Crytzer Invitational January 9.
“[DePierro] was huge at 125,” said Murillo, noting that some at 125 can weigh as much as 140 naturally, but cut weight to be in a position where they’ll gain a strength advantage.
“I couldn’t do much. I’d get front headlocks and he’d shove me by.”
Encountering a bigger foe is a difficult task for Murillo, and certainly nothing new. He faced the same challenge as a freshman at Southington.
“It’s like déjà vu,” Murillo said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating because I’ve been through it and I’ve got to work through it. I’m going to get to 125 someday, but it takes some time.”
He eats well and often and lifted religiously in the offseason, but he recognizes he’ll have to be patient.
“I did research and tried to gain muscle mass. I gained five or six pounds in two months, but it goes away when the wrestling season starts and I don’t have time to lift. I’m not really looking forward for the season to end because I’m really enjoying it, but I want to get back to lifting. When I get to 125, Dylan and I joke we’re going to have a great lineup.”
Black doesn’t expect it to be a problem for long. He said Murillo will wrestle at 125 for all four of his collegiate seasons.
“He’s going to be a tremendous 125 for us,” Black said. “He’s doing a great job in terms of his preparation, attitude and work ethic. Every freshman has to make adjustments to the next level. Zack is making those adjustments, but also is making the adjustment to wrestling opponents that are bigger than him. Right now, he is competing hard. He’s getting his hand raised, but he is having challenges vs. the bigger, stronger competitor.
“Just as Zack’s high school career developed into a championship career and finish, I see the same thing happening for him here at Wesleyan.”