Gonzalez's 'quiet' but stellar career
Montini senior's toughness will be missed
By Gary Larsen
“He’s just a tough, tough kid,” said Montini coach Mike Bukovsky. “He’s always been one of those guys that wants to be right there in the fight. It’s part of who he is.”
Through four varsity seasons, Isaiah Gonzalez has wrestled and won on one healthy knee, won the matches he was supposed to win, and a few that he wasn’t.
With Montini annually wrestling one of the most difficult schedules of any Illinois team, Gonzalez has more than 150 career varsity wins under his belt, and figures to end his Montini career with an average of more than 40 wins per season.
He has taken on all challengers in yet another year full of top competition, and the hard-nosed kid with the pedigree is also having more fun now than he ever had before.
“I have a different mentality about the sport this year,” Gonzalez said. “I love it now. I have a whole different view about the sport than I used to have, and what the sport has to teach you.”
Gonzalez didn’t always wrestle for himself. He wasn’t the prototypical wrestling lifer, with wrestling wrapped into the strands of his DNA.
“It was one of those things where I’d just been doing it ever since I was younger, and more to make other people happy,” Gonzalez said.
Those days are gone. Gonzalez has found his passion for the sport, and sees more clearly than ever what wrestling has to offer him.
“It’s the work ethic you learn, that there’s value in just working hard to achieve a goal. And that’s life – if you want something, you have to work hard to achieve it.”
“I go to school, work hard at practice, go home and study, and then go to bed early so I’ll be ready for an early-morning workout. It’s a work ethic that teaches you how to live your life.”
Gonzalez was a Class AA state runner-up at 145 pounds last year, and is currently the top-ranked Class 2A wrestler at 160 in the new 3-class system.
His 38-6 record heading into the post-season includes wins over ranked Class 3A wrestlers in Fenwick’s Bobby Barnhisel (No. 1 at 152) and Neuqua Valley’s Nick Proctor (No. 2 at 160), and all 6 of his losses came to wrestlers ranked out-of-state in the regional and national tournaments that Montini annually attends.
One of his losses came to Iowa City West’s Derek St. John, ranked No. 3 in the country at 160 by WIN Magazine, on the title mat at this year’s Dvorak tournament. Gonzalez finished fourth at Ohio’s formidable 50-plus team Ironman tournament, and second at Wisconsin’s Cheesehead Tournament.
He’ll also leave Montini as a four-time place-winner at the Dvorak, the toughest regular season tournament in Illinois. In his freshman and sophomore years, Gonzalez wrestled at 145 there against some of Illinois’ best upperclassmen.
“In every season, I can remember a couple of matches that he somehow pulled out for us, where you’re not even sure if he was the better wrestler and you think, ‘how did he pull that off?’” said Montini coach Mike Bukovsky.
Gonzalez announced his arrival on the Illinois wrestling scene by earning a Dvorak place medal at 145 pounds as a freshman. In competing against juniors and seniors that year, there was one particular upperclassman in the Montini practice room that year that got him ready for it.
Funny thing was, Gonzalez wasn’t all that crazy about him.
“I had great workout partners that year, like Brian Martin,” Gonzalez said. “But we didn’t really get along, so things got a little too rough sometimes in practice. Even though that’s not how it’s supposed to be, it made me better.”
His sophomore and junior years were marred by knee injuries and surgeries, but it didn’t stop him from competing. He wrestled the final third of his sophomore season on a knee with torn ligaments, and had off-season surgery.
Last year, he had another knee surgery just 11 days before the Dvorak tournament in December.
“I ended up getting fifth there, but it was tough,” Gonzalez said. “I’m at my best on my feet, so not being able to wrestle on my feet really restricted me. I wasn’t as fast, and then when you’re on bottom you can’t get out because of your knee.”
“But (Bukovsky) is always pushing me, and he helped me get through that. He just kept telling me I could do it.”
It helped that Gonzalez has always had a high threshold for pain, but he credits Bukovsky for taking him to another level, on and off the mat.
“Coach is always pushing us to get out of our comfort zone, and once you’ve been to that point, you know next time you can go even harder,” Gonzalez said.
“He’s inspirational, he makes you feel like you belong, like you’re part of a family and a community. It’s not just about wrestling. He really teaches us life lessons. He wants us to go out there with class, and represent Montini the right way. There’s a standard that we try to follow, and it’s because of him.”
Gonzalez’s runner-up appearance on a state title mat last year also taught him something about himself – more than ever, he’s burning to win himself a state title.
Gonzalez beat Barnhisel in overtime in a dual match this year, falling behind early before coming back and then winning the match with an overtime takedown.
“I’d seen him wrestle, but I didn’t know he was that tough on top,” Gonzalez said of Barnhisel. “And he was wrestling up a weight from 152. He was really strong on top.”
Bukovsky was happy to see Gonzalez rise to the challenge. “It was a great test for Isaiah. He came in off a loss in Wisconsin, he lost in overtime, and a week later he got the chance to turn the tables, and win a match in overtime against a tough kid,” Bukovsky said.
For years now, with a horde of top-level high school wrestlers, Montini’s practice room has been preparing its wrestlers to win matches just like the one Gonzalez won over Barnhisel.
“Once we’re in the room, we’re no longer friends. Every day is a battle,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody’s bleeding, and banged up, and everyone is pushing each other really hard.”
In the heat of those practice-room battles, Gonzalez has always led by example, and he has tried to be more of a vocal leader this season.
“It’s almost like a family thing,” Gonzalez said. “The more comfortable you are with the people you work out with, the more you can push them and they can push you.”
Gonzalez is considering wrestling in college, possibly at North Central College, and Bukovsky believes his senior has what it takes to elevate his wrestling even more at the next level.
But Montini’s coach is dreading the day when he can no longer send Gonzalez to the scorer’s table.
“If you look at what he’s done – it kind of scares me to think of having a team without him. He’s one of those kids that when you look at him, he’s got that grit in his eye, and that toughness. You just know that no matter where you go, you’re going to be in the thick of things, and he’s going to battle for you.”
“He’s had an impact since the day he got here. He’s always been a very tough, physical kid, and he embodies what our program tries to be.”
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