Juan Zabalu Seeks State Championship after Wrestling Rebirth


Juan Zabalu (left) looks on as Coach Matt Schiller bends over to talk to Mason Bradford prior to the second of three matches during the season opening tri-meet on Saturday. | by Dakota Antelman

by Dakota Antelman

Ever since the wrestling program at Hudson High School was canceled last season, Juan Zabalu, a wrestler with a feared combination of quickness and strength, has struggled to maintain motivation and commitment to his sport.

The senior has gone through setbacks and struggles, internal and external over the past year, more than once witnessing his promising high school wrestling career nearly end. Midway through his junior season, Zabalu’s team was disbanded due to low enrollment. The co-op team he joined later that year left him feeling out of place and without a unified group of teammates. Early in his senior year, wrestling for that same co-op team, Zabalu “made mistakes,” skipping practices and drawing the attention of Coach Matt Schiller. But through it all, Zabalu has dominated Central Massachusetts wrestling. Schiller himself says he expects Zabalu to win at the state tournament this spring.

Wrestling has been a part of Zabalu’s life since eighth grade. He once wrestled alongside his brother, state champion Victor Zabalu, and felt enough of a love for the sport to give up basketball, a sport he had played for much of his youth. 

“I could have stuck with basketball. I was pretty good. But wrestling, I just like it better. It’s more of an individual sport,” he explained. “You don’t have to rely on other people in your round or your match. If you’re going to slack or just mess around at practice, then it’s definitely going to affect you. You have no one else to blame but yourself.”

Nevertheless, the team threatened Zabalu’s ability to even compete, especially during his junior season. Just nine players registered for wrestling that season. Four of them quit before the first match, and many of those who remained did not attend practice on a regular basis.  

With such rampant issues, the team cancelled three matches during the first six weeks of the season.

“You can’t play in a game without practicing, and it’s even more severe in wrestling,” Athletic Director Jessica Winders said. “You need technique. It was about safety, conditioning, and learning safe maneuvers on the mat. If you’re not at practice, we can’t have you competing in the meet.”

The lack of numbers at practice went beyond simply hurting the team’s chances at meets. Joey Bonina, an eighth grader last season, had no one his size to wrestle with at practice. As a result, the 113-pound 14 year old was left to spar with a 160-pound alumnus. In just his second practice with the team, Bonina broke his hand when his larger wrestling partner fell on him.

Despite the injury, Bonina said he worked hard to stay in shape, working in the weight room, running on the indoor track, and riding on an exercise bike during practices. That was not the case for many of his teammates. As December drew on, participation continued to dwindle. The program had reached its breaking point.

“We reached a point where this was more of an embarrassment than a program that any of us could be proud of,” Winders said bluntly.

On January 6, Winders and the wrestling coaches officially canceled the wrestling program at Hudson High School.

That set in motion a month long period of uncertainty for Zabalu and Bonina in particular. Without a team, Zabalu said he felt defeated. Bonina, though still busy healing his broken hand, convinced his family to start pressuring Winders to preserve wrestling in some form. The same week that the team was cancelled, Winders entered an emergency waiver application to the MIAA. She proposed that the state allow Hudson’s wrestlers to join a preexisting co-op team hosted by Assabet High School, and involving students from the Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA). Three weeks after she canceled the team, Winders’ waiver application was approved and Hudson students were presented with the opportunity to join the Assabet/AMSA team.

Though Bonina jumped at the opportunity, Zabalu says he was reluctant.

“At first I had second thoughts like ‘Should I do this? Should I go with it?’” He said. “I had friends telling me I was really good and should keep at it. My parents, my brother, other teammates, my old coaches, they were all telling me to go to Assabet.”

Zabalu in fact took another week off before deciding to join the team.

“But once I went with it and once I started having success, I was like ‘Wow, I’m so happy I did this instead of sitting at home and not participating in anything,’” he concluded.

After a brief period of conditioning, Zabalu was able to get himself back in shape. Zabalu wrestled in the 220lb weight class for the rest of the year. He marched through the sectionals tournament with ease, and placed first at the state tournament late last winter.

“He’s a good athlete,” coach Matt Schiller said. “Wrestling is funny. We get all the misfits — I love it. But we don’t always get the pure athletes. I’ve only had like three or four pure athletes in my time, and Juan is a gifted athlete. He’s very quick; he’s very smooth. He kind of gets things.”

Schiller speaks highly of Zabalu, not only predicting a win at the state tournament, but even naming placement among the top 10 wrestlers at the All-New England tournament as an achievable goal for Zabalu. Yet as he celebrated Zabalu’s natural talent, Schiller found himself frustrated as practices got underway earlier this month.

Zabalu was missing entire practices and showing up late to many of the practices he did attend. After a particular absence during the first week of December, Schiller held a meeting with Zabalu.

“He told me that I have to get my priorities straight if I want to be a state champion this year,” Zabalu said of the meeting with Schiller. “That kind of got me thinking. Now I’m certainly working hard. That’s my goal this season; I want to be state champion.”

He elaborated, saying, “It’s just a matter of time management for me,” he says. “It’s not any of the coaches’ or players’ fault. It’s just my fault. It’s my own responsibility.”

Teammates attest to the fact that in the wake of that meeting, Zabalu has appeared more committed to the team.

“Juan has definitely been friendlier recently,” Mason Bradford, an Assabet junior and teammate of Zabalu said. “He knows more people on the team now, so it’s been easier for him to focus on the team. He was sort of closed off last year.”

Bradford has been Zabalu’s primary wrestling partner in practice so far this year. He has seen and felt firsthand what his teammate is capable of when he is focused and committed to wrestling. On the final practice before Saturday’s season opening meet, Bradford and Zabalu were participating in sparring drills when Zabalu kicked out Bradford’s feet and delivered a crushing takedown. Bradford took several moments to get to his feet after the take-down. Once he did though, he slapped Zabalu on the back and congratulated him.

Juan Zabalu wrestles a Malden opponent in the 220 pound bout of his team's first match of the season. Zabalu would pin his opponent and help secure a win vs. Malden. | by Dakota Antelman
Juan Zabalu wrestles a Malden opponent during his team’s first match of the season. Zabalu would pin his opponent and help secure a win vs. Malden. | by Dakota Antelman

“He has his days where he’s off. But otherwise, he knows what he wants. He’s definitely going places,” Bradford said. “He can make it to states. I think he is definitely going to place second or first out of states this year.”

In his first chance to showcase that ability on a public stage, Zabalu squeaked out a win in one bout and decisively won another in the season opening tri-meet against Billerica, Malden and, Minuteman Tech. He struggled in his first match, wrestling, as Schiller described it “uncharacteristically.” When he next wrestled however, he took to the mat and won. While others grunted or yelled while wrestling, Zabalu silently picked up his 220lb Malden foe and dropped him on his back.  

After the match, Coach Schiller said, in a voice made hoarse by hours of screaming, “That’s the real Juan. That was Juan wrestling really technically well.”

Schiller has worked with Zabalu to set goals for this season. Zabalu hopes, for his own sake, and for the sake of wrestling in Hudson, that he will have his hand in the air, victorious at states at the end of the season.

“I have to make it all up to him,” Zabalu said of Schiller. “All the effort he puts into the program to make kids better. I want to show him that his hard work and his dedication can pay off. [I want to show him] that he can be a successful coach.

He added. “I just want to make everyone proud [and] show people that I’m not all talk. I have to walk the walk.”