By STEVE MILLAR
Two wrestlers became four-time Catholic League champions Saturday. One of them, St. Rita’s Austin O’Connor, tends to hog the spotlight. For good reason.
Mount Carmel’s David Riojas is just fine with that. He has no problem being overlooked, even after becoming just the 14th wrestler ever to win four titles in the tradition-rich league.
“This year, I’ve kind of been under the radar,” he said. “I made some mistakes earlier in the year. It doesn’t matter if I’m under the radar or in the spotlight. I know what I have to do and I just go out there and work my hardest.”
Riojas, who’s 27-5 and ranked No. 2 in Class 3A at 170 pounds, topped No. 12 Peter Ferraro of Marmion in the Catholic League semifinals, then pinned No. 6 Trevor Swier of Providence in 1:24 in the championship match.
It was an appropriate way for Riojas’ final Catholic League bout to end.
“I wanted to finish it off with a big bang,” Riojas said. “As soon as I got it and locked it up I was just like ‘Yeah! I’ve got it.’
“This was just fun. I know there’s not a lot of people that have four Catholic League titles, so I wanted to get it so bad. It’s the best league in the whole Midwest. It’s great competition, and it feels great to come out on top.”
It was the last of a long series of memories that Riojas will always have from this time wrestling in the Catholic League.
It all began as a freshman when Riojas topped De La Salle’s Ryan Rickett 10-3 in the championship at 160.
“I was at 160 and it was a bit of a stretch,” Riojas said. “I was hitting 155 at weigh-ins. It was tough wrestling against bigger, older guys, but it helped make me better.”
Riojas capped his run to the 160-pound title as a sophomore by pinning De La Salle’s Sal Reyes.
Last season, he won all three of his matches at the tournament by fall, including the final against Ferraro.
“My junior is year is probably going to be the one I remember most, when I pinned my way through it,” Riojas said. “This year, I had a little tougher time, but it was still a great run.”
Riojas began wrestling at age 7 with the Romeoville Spartans.
“I was playing football and the football coach was also the wrestling coach and he wanted me to do both,” Riojas said. “I ended up dropping football.
“I love this sport because it makes you push yourself. In other sports, you could relax sometimes, let your teammates do the work. In wrestling, it’s all you and you’ve got to go hard nonstop.”
When deciding where to attend high school, two things pushed Riojas toward Mount Carmel.
The first was coach John Kading, who coached Riojas for three years before leaving for Leyden at the end of last season and being replaced by Alex Tsirtsis.
The second was the opportunity to have Bryce Brill as a practice partner. At the time, Brill had won two state championships. He went on to win a third and wrestle at Northwestern.
“It was huge to have Bryce there to work with,” Riojas said. “I learned a lot from getting to compete with him every day in practice.”
Riojas finished third in the state at 170 in Class 2A last season, falling 5-2 to Triad’s Cole Witzig in the semifinals.
As a sophomore, he took sixth at 160 in Class 3A.
Tsirtsis feels he’s capable of making it to the top of the podium this year.
“David is a really great athlete,” Tsirtsis said. “He wrestles hard and very aggressive. He needs to come into the room and keep getting better every day. If he does that, he’ll be right there ready to contend for a state title.”
Riojas also has that belief, something he may have been lacking in past seasons.
“Last year, I got a little shaky coming into big tournaments,” he said. “This year, I just threw that away. I come in knowing what I have to do and believing in myself. Everything’s clicking and my confidence is up. I know what I can do.
“The mental game is such a big part of this. Now, I feel like I can’t lose. It’s great.”