Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but it is safe to say that junior wrestler Edel Vaca views his coach as a mentor. It is equally safe to say that Tony Islas sees some of himself in his prodigy.
Though Vaca and Islas graduated high school in different locations over two generations (Islas in 1990 from Rockford Auburn; Vaca in 2007 from Chicago’s Thomas Kelly), both enjoyed successful prep careers in urban school districts and both continued to strive in strong careers at NCAA Division III institutions.
“I never really saw Edel wrestle too much in high school,” Coach Islas said. “I met him on a campus visit, and I had the chance to talk with him and a couple of his buddies. I recruited him really on a judge of character. I took a chance and gambled, but I strongly felt this was a young man who would benefit from Knox, and vice versa.”
“My wrestling coach in high school was the first to really turn me on to Knox,” said Vaca. “Around [IHSA] state sectionals, Coach Islas began to notice me, and the wrestling program got me in touch with the rest of the school, and I started to become interested academically, since two of Knox’s stronger programs are interests of mine [secondary education and creative writing].”
Islas was a four-year letter winner at Upper Iowa University, where he garnered honors in several tournaments. Vaca’s wrestling career at Knox has already begun to flourish in a similar pattern. Following freshman and sophomore seasons where he went 16-22 and 30-16, respectively with a placement in the NCAA regionals in the latter, Vaca has come sprinting out of the gates to a 14-3 record.
His 8-3 record earlier in the season was good enough to earn ninth and tenth place national rankings at 133 pounds in the December 8 and 22, 2009 individual polls, following a strong performance where he won his 25-man individual bracket at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Invite.
Not surprisingly, the wrestler’s feelings on the honor matched those of his coach.
“I wasn’t happy or unhappy,” Vaca said. “I believed I had been wrestling well, but I was still not sure I deserved it or had earned it yet.”
“I think his ranking is a little premature, but he certainly earned it,” Islas said in a press release from the college. “It is still early in the season, and although it is a nice recognition, we have a long way ahead of us still.”
Even after several strong performances, Vaca’s numbers were still not strong enough to keep him in the national’s top 10. However, Vaca’s undefeated performance at last weekend’s Chuck Porter Duals at Knox helped his cause. The latest poll, released yesterday by D3wrestle.com, put Vaca as a national honorable mention at 133.
“It definitely added pressure. All around campus, people talked about it, but I tried to keep it low-key. It sort of opened my mind that I had the potential to do great things, and it taught me to wrestle under pressure, which I guess is a good thing.”
“I’m actually happier about it now [that he isn’t ranked],” Islas said. “To come back after break and go 4-0 immediately at the duals against good competition showed me he was ready to go. The match [against University of Chicago’s Fransisco Acosta] was a huge win because he beat someone of his style.”
Along with similar experiences growing up and on the mat, the two have developed a personal relationship. Vaca stayed at Knox this past summer and recalled sharing meals with his coach.
“He kind of took me under his wing when I stayed here,” Vaca said. “He really treated me like his own son.”
Their personal commonalities spill into their professional relationship as well. In the past year, Islas has not been shy to use Spanish to communicate with Vaca and two other Latino teammates (junior Sergio Ulloa and freshman Alejandro Varela) while competing on the mat.
“It started last year,” Islas said. “They’re usually competing against English-speaking opponents, so it’s good to have a small advantage. It helps with their offensive attacks. I wish all of my team members spoke Spanish, because every little advantage helps.”
“It definitely makes me feel closer to Coach for the simple fact of ethnicity,” said Vaca. “Everything I have been through, he’s been through also.”
Naturally, the two have similar goals for Vaca. Before the season, Islas said he hoped Vaca could translate his ability into All-America honors.
“I always like to have the All-America mindset, and I’d like to place in the top eight nationally. But I try to take it one step at a time. I have to wrestle well the rest of this season and then place well in regionals and sectionals before that can happen. But making it to nationals is my focus for now.”
Knox team hosts Porter Duals
The Knox wrestlers hosted their annual Chuck Porter Duals (named for the man who essentially started the Knox wrestling program) and finished seventh, ahead of Truman State University after defeating the Division II team 29-18. Earlier in the day, Knox dropped a 44-6 decision to eventual-second place Loras, a 52-3 match to Wabash, and a 40-9 meeting with the University of Chicago. Trine University took home the team championship.
Individually, aside from Vaca’s 4-0 finish, senior Tim Yee won a 9-1 major decision over Truman State’s Jordan Powell at 141. Freshman Casey Spencer took a 15-4 major decision from Truman State’s Steve Kueny at 157.
The road ahead
Knox returns to the mat this weekend at the Al Hanke Invite in Elmhurst, Ill. Beyond that, the Fire will continue to prepare itself for the NWA Conference Championships and NCAA regionals to close out the year. Islas’ evaluations for the team are complimentary, but he understands the team’s limitations at the same time.
“We’re young. We have a couple upperclassmen, but the majority are underclassmen. We need to fight and battle with other teams. We’re here, and we need to go for it. Once they internally realize ‘I can compete with anyone on the mat,’ it’ll be great. So, so far it’s been bittersweet.
“We have some of the smartest kids in the country. Athletically, I’ve seen some guys do some wonderful things. I’ve seen glimpses of us being able to compete at a high level, and other times when we’ve looked young. That doesn’t bode well for now, but our future is bright. It’s only a matter of time.”