ORWELL - Grand Valley wrestling coach Steve Paratto has watched Glenn Zaller compete for a long time, and he never once saw him get like this.
Zaller, a sophomore at the time, was coming off one of his best performances of the season, pinning his opponent at the Division III district tournament to finish third and secure a spot at the State Wrestling Tournament.
This was an impressive accomplishment for an underclassman. He even upstaged his older brother, Matt, a senior who placed fourth at the district and ended up taking sixth at the state tournament.
Yet that's when Paratto saw a side of Zaller that he wasn't used to seeing.
"He's never been one to get scared by the event too much," Paratto said. "The only time I saw pressure get to him was at the state tournament last year. I think it finally hit him. I think if he would've got his nerves under control, he could've placed down there, too."
Instead, Zaller lost his first two matches and was eliminated. Don't expect that to happen again this year. Granted, Zaller has to make the state tournament first, but that seems likely considering the way he's wrestled this season.
The 182-pound junior is 35-2 and coming off a sectional championship in which he pinned all of his opponents for the second straight year. He also placed first at the Eastern Ohio Wrestling League Tournament and the Joshua Hephner Memorial Tournament. In fact, his last loss came more than a month ago.
The Mustangs compete at the Division III district tournament on Friday and Saturday at Garfield Heights High School. The top four placers in each weight class advance to the state tournament, which runs from Feb. 28 to March 2 at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
Wrestling at the Schot, as it's commonly referred to, may have been the experience Zaller needed to overcome some anxiety.
"(Wrestling) is not as nervewracking as it was my first two years," he said. "After a while, you get used to the big crowd. I kind of zone it out. I take the mindset that nothing else matters but the match. Focus. Concentrate. And enjoy the moment."
Zaller said a big reason for his success is because of how well other wrestlers on the Mustangs are doing. Grand Valley placed first in Division IV at the EOWL Tournament. Furthermore, five other wrestlers will be joining Zaller at the district tournament.
"All the hard work that we put in at the practice room is paying off," he said. "We've had kids stepping up all over. Our heavyweight, Jason Takacs, gives me a great match all the time. Last year, I had my brother, but that wasn't really a match because he always kicked the crap out of me.
"Jason wants to get better, and he works hard, so, in turn, that makes me better."
Having someone to work with at practice hasn't always been easy for Paratto. The eighth-year coach said one of his biggest obstacles is finding enough wrestlers to compete in the practice room. When there's a quality wrestler like Zaller, things can become more difficult because he needs other skilled teammates close to his level to challenge him.
"It's hard to have improvement if you don't have a good drill partner in the room every day," Paratto said. "Last year (Glenn) had his brother out there pushing him. Takacs has done a good job this year, and with him being bigger, he's able to throw his weight around and it gives Glenn a challenge. That helps both of them."
There seems to be quite a few Mustangs catching on these days. Wrestling at districts along with Zaller and Takacs are 113-pound Michael Miller, 120-pound Heath Martin, 152-pound Sean Szitas - a returning state qualifier - and 160-pound Luke Baldwin. Zaller is hoping they will all be competing in another week at the state tournament as well.
Zaller pointed to last year's experience at state as something that played a big role in his success this season. He may not have won a match, but he said just qualifying helped him realize his potential. Some words of wisdom from his coach also helped re-affirm what he was beginning to understand.
"It was a huge confidence booster," Zaller said of qualifying. "At my school, it hasn't happened much lately. But (the coaches) showed me that if I put the work in, I can progress as far as I want. Last year I realized that if I go out and wrestle and put my heart into it, I can achieve any goal I set my mind to - as long as I work for it and I strive for it."