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By MIKE GAROFOLA
At first, it was only Hall of Fame head coach Mark Hahn and the Glenbard North faithful who watched the slow rise to prominence of Abe Assad during his rookie season where he would collect 38 wins and an appearance on the big floor in Champaign.
He would shine last season while in the shadow of his superstar teammate Austin Gomez – lifting championship trophies at both regionals and sectionals, winning 40 matches, and advancing to his second consecutive trip to state.
But his dazzling performance last July in Fargo at nationals is now the go-to definition for what promises to be a break-through year for Assad, who has established himself as one of the best in 3A at 170.
“Abe is a great kid, and one who made an immediate impact on our program when he came in as a freshmen, and it was his toughness and aggressive style which allowed him to fit right in,” says Hahn, after watching Assad win his second consecutive title at the Hruska Classic last weekend at tourney host Conant.
“I love the guy,” says Assad of his head coach (Hahn), who is nearing 700 career victories, all of which collected while leading the Panthers high profile program.
“One word describes coach Hahn – and that’s EXTREME – but the thing that’s impressed me so much about him is tradition, and the Gold Dot is so important with him and Glenbard North, and how he gives the same attention to everyone in our program, regardless of whether a guy is a freshmen or someone on the varsity.”
“From my very first day here, it was clear that he wanted me and everyone else in the room to succeed, and that hasn’t changed at all, that’s what I like about him so much.”
Assad’s first taste of wrestling began way back in kindergarten, and whilst his rise to stardom has been quick, it’s easy to forget that he’s just a junior, and one who just two years ago began his high school career as a 120-pounder.
Placed just in front of both Gomez (126) and senior, Mike Milan (132) he was penciled into the Panthers starting lineup at 120 pounds and would produce a sparkling record, which ended with a 6-5 OTB loss in his state opener to eventual sixth-place medalist, Alec Riportella of Mundelein.
“I had Gomez and Milan in front of me and (couldn’t) beat either one of them, plus I was cutting a lot of weight in order to go at 120, and when your first trip to state ends so quickly, there’s not much to say,” admitted Assad of his one and done excursion two years ago.
That one day stay in Champaign provided all the motivation needed for the affable Panthers junior during his offseason, who put in countless hours to improve his game, while adjusting to a major change.
“I went through a massive growth spurt, (grew) a whole shirt size in one month, and would be in our lineup at 145 pounds when the season began last year, with me still cutting 10-12 per week to compete at that weight.”
In addition to his aforementioned regional and sectional titles won, Assad would collect first place honors at the Hruska Invite, and later, a second place finish at the Dvorak.
All of that success, combined with plenty of time in the room with Gomez and the Panthers coaching staff, appeared to have him primed and ready for his second visit to Champaign.
“Gomez was whooping me pretty good in the room, but it was fun going against him, and I know all that work with him helped me improve from week-to-week. When I looked at my state bracket beforehand, I liked my draw and felt I would come home with a medal for sure,” recounts Assad.
However, following his 7-5 victory in his Thursday evening opener, things went south for Assad against DVC rival, Jake Keating of Naperville Central.
“He beat me earlier in a conference dual, and although I was able to get in (deep) with a double leg, I wasn’t able to finish.”
“At state, he legged me in the second period, and I was chasing the match the rest of the way.”
Assad would face Yahya Thomas (Mt. Carmel) in his second wrestle-back bout, a rematch of sorts of the Dvorak final in which Thomas edged Assad 7-5.
“I remembered he was gassed at the Dvorak in the final, and I figured if I worked him hard, he would have nothing left in the third period – but he had plenty left in his tank, and I fell one win short of a state medal after he beat me 7-5.”
Once again, a motivational and life changing result for Assad, and one in which he would turn to Hahn for some help and guidance.
“He’s always there – a guy you can talk to, and just as it was from the very start as a freshmen, he would preach a lot of the same things: two-on-one’s, fitness, doing the little things correctly, kind of simple stuff, but he would reinforce all of it, sometimes by raising his voice and really working me hard, but it was what I needed.
“The biggest improvement for Abe was in his take-down finishes,” says Hahn.
“He can hand fight, and his toughness on top already looks like it’s ready for the next level.”
That next level Hahn speaks of is where Assad has already guaranteed for himself when he recently committed to attend West Point Academy, where he will continue to wrestle, while taking advantage of a world-class education, second to none.
“Just as I appreciate and respect the wrestling tradition at Glenbard North, it’s the same thing that I felt when I stepped onto the campus at West Point,” says Assad.
Assad would reach the stratosphere of his sport last summer when he became Cadet Greco-Roman National Champion in Fargo at 170 pounds – throwing himself into spotlight following his victory in late July.
“It felt really good to win after finishing second the year before at 145,” said Assad, who would also earn a second place national trophy in Freestyle a year ago.
“I had some interest in going to West Point, so I said to my friend, Markus Hartman, “how about putting in a good word for me dude with coach (Kevin) Ward.”
Hartman, a state runner-up at 145 last season for Barrington, is FloWrestling’s No. 10 rated 152-pounder in the nation did just that, and one morning, at 6:00 a.m., he would answer his cell to find Kevin Ward on the other end.
“We had a great conversation, and we talked (first) about academics, then his program, and how he wanted me to come out for a visit,” Assad says, still with excitement in his voice.
The instant he arrived on campus, it was clear as to what his new address would be in the fall of 2019.
“The place was amazing. You’re right on the Hudson River, sixty minutes from New York City. Coach Ward, the staff, and the guys on the team were all great. It was the perfect fit for me,” admits Assad, who had the Naval Academy, UNC, and Virginia on his short list.
“The education I would receive would be unbelievable, and deep-down, I wanted to be a part of a program that is young and on the rise, and to be one of the guys who helps build the program into really something great,” says Assad, who figures a degree in chemistry or kinesiology might be the direction he takes once at the Point.
“Abe has done a great job of becoming a leader in our room (and) as I said, his style will translate very well at the collegiate level,” said Hahn.
Assad describes himself as a guy who has a high work rate, matched by the same work ethic, while during a match, he’s aggressive on his feet, trusting of his shots, and the type of opponent whose hand-fighting will eventually wear you down.
Watching the Panthers star last weekend at the Hruska Invite, Assad flashed impressive physicality, balance, and pace – all key attributes which made him a nuisance to attack and/or defend against.
“What happened at Fargo last summer was something to be very proud of, but wrestling at Glenbard North has been great, and I look forward to able to two more years there.”