By Betsy Veysman
After watching the New York State championships from the sidelines, Chris Araoz couldn’t wait to get back on the mat.
The wait was worth it.
The Wantagh wrestler became a national champion on Friday night at 120 pounds with a 6-3 decision over Philip Anderson of Georgia at the NHSCA Junior Nationals in Virginia Beach.
“It’s so hard to win this tournament, it’s a tremendous accomplishment,” said Wantagh head coach Paul Gillespie. “Chris works extremely hard and this was a culmination of all of his work. You see the magnitude of his effort when you look at the bracket and see over 60 wrestlers and quite a few very good ones.”
Araoz admitted that he entered the tournament “just wanting to place and become an All-American.”
But he did far better than that. He opened the competition with an 8-5 victory over Luke Welch of Indiana before cruising to a 15-0 technical fall over Nicholas Young of South Carolina. He continued his march with a pair of comfortable decisions, 7-3 against Montana’s Taylor French and 8-4 over Dalton Henderson of Virginia to set up a semifinal meeting with returning NHSCA Champion Deshun Brown of New Mexico.
Brown jumped out early, taking Araoz down soon after the opening whistle and riding the New York grappler effectively. But when Brown took down at the start of the second, Araoz and his top wrestling took over.
“I knew he was really good on his feet,” Araoz said. “He took me down in the first 20 seconds and I was stuck on bottom for the whole first period. But in the second, I quickly turned him twice and kind of broke him. I was able to control the match after that.”
“When you wrestle Chris, you better be able to get off the bottom,” Gillespie added. “He will tilt you. It’s like [former Hofstra All-American] Charles Griffin. He got that tilt against every single guy he wrestled. When you’re persistent and skilled at it, you’ll get the tilt.”
The Wantagh junior captured the 8-3 victory over Brown and a chance to compete for a national title.
“The semis match was really tough,” Gillespie added. “[Brown] is built like a miniature Jordan Burroughs. Chris wrestled fantastic, I couldn’t believe he beat him like that. That just brought him to a whole new level.”
Araoz maintained that level in the final when he faced off with Georgia’s Anderson.
“Going in, I wanted to keep things close in the first and then take my opportunity on top and get some turns,” he said.
But it wasn’t close after the opening stanza, and that was a good thing for Araoz. He notched a takedown late in the first period and immediately tilted Anderson for a 5-0 lead. After an escape by his opponent in the second, Araoz held a 5-1 advantage going into the final two minutes. Anderson chose the top position.
“At that point I was so close,” he said. “I just didn’t want to mess up or get caught.”
Araoz was called for stalling three times, but when the buzzer sounded, he had earned a national championship by a 6-3 score. He became the first Wantagh wrestler to win NHSCAs.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. I still don’t feel like it actually happened. It was just awesome. I definitely worked hard and it’s nice to get something to show for the work I did.”
It was a stark contrast to the way Araoz felt in February after the Section 8 tournament.
During the high school campaign, Araoz had registered several wins over top notch opponents, including Corey Jamison, Abubokarr Sow, Justin Corradino, Division II runner up Jeff O’Lena and Roslyn’s John Lanzillotti.
In the finals of the county championships, however, Lanzillotti got revenge with an 8-4 win over Araoz. The result meant that the Roslyn wrestler was headed to the state tournament and Araoz’s fate was out of his hands.
“When you wrestle someone a few times, they know your style and what they need to do to stop you,” Gillespie said. “Chris kind of shut down his offense against Lanzilotti and relied too much on his tilt. He seemed a little nervous. He looked nothing like he looked this weekend.”
A few days later, Araoz was informed that he had not received an at-large bid to the New York State Championships in Albany.
“I really wasn’t sure if I would get a wildcard or not,” he said. “I thought I might because I had beaten a lot of quality kids, but it’s a weird system. I was really disappointed that I wouldn’t get a shot.”
But Araoz made the trip with his team to the Times Union Center in Albany and cheered on Warrior freshman Jose Rodriguez, who was the runner up at 99 pounds and junior Dan McDevitt, who took fifth at 138.
“It was hard not to be wrestling,” he said. “But it was great to see my teammates do so well. It was really awesome to watch them. It was also cool to see that the kid who won at my weight [Connetquot’s Sean McCabe] is someone I beat right before the season started. It was nice to know that I could have done well and that I will do well next year when I wrestle at states.”
Gillespie wholeheartedly agreed. He already had high expectations for Araoz’s senior year before this weekend and now thinks the bar has been set even higher.
“Winning this tournament puts a target on your back,” the coach said. “Chris will have to be up for every single match he wrestles now because everyone will want a piece of him. I think he’s up to the challenge. I think he’ll be one of the favorites next year, even with a lot of good wrestlers coming back. He’s right there to have a shot at his first state title, I really believe it.”
One of the reasons Gillespie feels so confident is Araoz’s work ethic. In addition to the training he does with the Wantagh squad, he also puts in time with Craig Vitagliano at the Ascend Wrestling Club and with strength coach Will Ellinger.
“[Vitagliano] definitely fixes a lot of my technical mistakes and motivates me,” Araoz said. “He’s a mentor for me too. [Ellinger] has done a great job. I feel like I’m stronger than everyone I wrestled and that’s because of him.”
Araoz also mentioned having great workout partners, including McDevitt, who took fifth at 138 in Virginia Beach this weekend, and Wantagh assistant coach Ray Handley, who he said “has made me a lot better.”
All of that isn’t enough wrestling for Araoz, though. He also attends youth practices and helps to coach the younger grapplers in his hometown.
“I have a nine year old brother who just started wrestling,” he said. “I really like to help out because when I was younger, there were always older kids helping us and teaching us. I just try to give back.”
Gillespie said that such thinking is typical of a student athlete he calls “one of a kind.”
“I’ll tell you what, you can’t get much better than Chris,” Gillespie said. “He has a 95 average and great board scores. He’s a very disciplined person and one of the nicest and most polite young men you’ll associate with. It makes sense that he’s interested in West Point.”
Araoz said he has had his eye on Army for a while although he knows he may have many options at the collegiate level.
“West Point is a school I’d really like to go,” he said. “I like that it’s really structured and I’ve always been interested in joining the military. It would be a great honor. But after this weekend, a few more other doors may have opened for me too.”
Araoz plans to keep those doors open. He will continue honing his folkstyle skills while delving into freestyle this summer. After standing on top of the podium on Friday night, he will keep his sights set on standing on a different podium in Albany in February of 2013.
“I definitely want to win a state title next year,” he said. “I feel like I should have this year. Then, I hope to come back to Virginia Beach and win another national title.”