To say Wellington senior Mike Casella didn’t land on many people’s state tournament hopefuls lists is an understatement.
Outside of the Dukes program, Casella wasn’t on anyone’s radar until just a few weeks ago.
That’s when he announced his presence by taking down the Patriot Athletic Conference 220-pound championship. He followed it up by capturing a sectional title at Independence, then winning four straight matches at the district tournament at Garfield Heights to earn a trip to the Division III state tournament.
Not bad for a guy who hadn’t wrestled for the two years previous to this season.
“His story is tremendous,” Dukes coach Bill Watters said. “I’ve been coaching for quite some time and everyone talks about what wrestling does for you and how it can change your life and steer you in the right direction, and he’s a classic example of how that’s true.”
Casella first tried the sport when he was in fifth grade, but didn’t stick with it. He took it up again in the eighth grade — advancing to the junior high state tournament — and wrestled for Firelands as a freshman.
But he didn’t complete his freshman season, transferred to Wellington and didn’t wrestle as a sophomore or junior.
“I wasn’t making the best decisions, I guess,” Casella said. “I started hanging out with the wrong people, I had bad grades.”
The academic problems and off-the-mat issues stalled his athletic career, but he worked on repairing those parts of his life and finally got things stabilized to the point where he felt wrestling was worth another shot.
“We definitely had a heart-to-heart at the beginning of the year and he’s stood by what he said he would do,” Watters said. “He’s got a lot of teachers that support him … there’s a lot of people pulling for him and wanting to see him do well. He’s taken that as kind of a second chance. He knew he came in here with one year left to prove what he can do, and he’s making the most of it.”
There actually was one person who wasn’t surprised to see Casella finish in the top four at the district tournament.
“From the beginning of the year, he said, ‘I’m going to be on that wall. I’m going to get my name on there with these state qualifiers and state champs,’” Watters said. “We kept reminding him throughout the year when practices would get hard, ‘Hey, this is what you asked for. This is what it takes if you want to be up there.’”
Both wrestler and coach talked about Casella having to prove himself throughout the season, and Casella feels the job isn’t done. He believes there are some out there who feel he may have gotten lucky to make it to the state tournament.
“I’m determined. I want to place,” he said. “Kids have been doing this their whole lives and I come back after a two-year break and make it to state, so I want to prove to everyone what I can do.
“It’s not over yet. I’m not shocked that it happened. It’s whatever right now. Kids want to make it to state, but I want to place at state. I don’t want to just go down there and enjoy myself.”
Watters watched Casella evolve throughout the season and is among those who knew something special was within his grasp. He recognized early that Casella had the tools needed to become a top-tier wrestler.
“He’s focused and he’s determined,” Watters said. “He’s one of those naturally gifted kids that hadn’t had the opportunity to hone in on those skills, and he’s made the most of it this year. He takes corrections well. You teach him something and he’s out there hitting it in the next match. He’s very coachable.
“He kind of wrestles with a chip on his shoulder because he’s not been able to do some of the things he’s wanted and he’s finally pointed in the right direction and he’s charging forward.”
Earning a spot at the state tournament after two years off the mat has had Casella wondering what might have been if he’d been wrestling his entire high school career.
“We had that conversation numerous times throughout the season,” Watters said. “He’s like, ‘Coach, I wish I would have gotten my stuff together before now. I can’t imagine how better I’d be if I had two more years under by belt.’ That’s a scary thought, really. He’s rolled with some of the best and he’s held his own.”
Casella will be the underdog again this weekend, unranked and going up against some of the top big men in the state. That doesn’t mean he won’t once again rise to the occasion.
“Mentally he’ll be prepared, and if we see the Mike we know can show up and wrestle, his shot at the podium is strong,” Watters said. “I’m very confident that he can get there.”
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