His orange hair experiment raised a few eyebrows, drew a bit of extra attention.
Joliet Central’s Trayvon Zabala didn’t need a bottle of hair color dye to set himself apart from the high school wrestling crowd, though. He is a three-time state qualifier and two-time state medal winner.
And, even as his hair fades back to black, he is burning a path toward a big finish to his career with the Steelmen.
Zabala is a senior with a 31-0 record. He is ranked No. 3 in the 120-pound weight class by Rob Sherrill, author and publisher of Illinois Best Weekly, heading into the Southwest Suburban Conference tournament this weekend. Zabala already has won tournaments at Conant, Pontiac and Lincoln.
He boasts a four-year record of 138-7 and that includes a third-place finish at 113 in the Class 3A state tournament last year and a runner-up finish at 112 in 2011. His wrestling resume stacks up with many of Joliet Central’s all-time greats. Only one thing is missing—a state title—from his bid to climb to the top of the heap.
He knows it, too.
“This time I’m going for it all,” Zabala said. “My coach says in practice, ‘Wrestle like a champ.’ So, every time I go out there I just wrestle like a champ, and it’s been paying off.”
Joliet Central coach Pat O’Connell compares Zabala’s wrestling style and his ability to rise up in big moments to that of so many of his storied Steelmen predecessors. The names fall from O’Connell’s lips like the tears that well up in a proud parent’s eyes as the pages turn in an old scrapbook.
“He’s a technician, so I’d have to say he’s like a Joe Herron in that way—a DeAngelo Love,” O’Connell said. “But he can be physical, too, beyond just being a technician. Warren Snapp would fit in that—Steve Harmon, going back. He does remind me of Steve Harmon.
“We talk about that all the time. You can be great friends with somebody, but in here—in the wrestling room—you’re pounding each other. He’s that way in here. He doesn’t care who you are. He wants to pound you. He goes until the whistle sounds. Walls are in—all sorts of things.”
This season, Zabala has notched nearly a dozen pins and countless major decisions. He has had only a handful of close calls up to this point. Not to worry.
He is pushed in practice every day by his drill partners—Drake DeBenedetti, David Hamilton and Donovan Luckett. And Zabala showed his mettle in the face of adversity last February while at the state tournament in Champaign.
He was called for an illegal body slam in his quarterfinal match against Barrington’s Jared Parvinmehr, a call that cost him the match and a chance to be a part of the single-greatest spectacle in IHSA sports, wrestling’s Grand March.
Zabala initially disputed the call. Later, he reviewed a video of the match and determined he was in the wrong. He responded by notching four straight victories and capped his run to a third-place finish with a 3-minute 49-second fall over Glenbard East’s Angelo San Juan.
“Everybody was talking about the kid (Parvinmehr)—that he was real good,” Zabala said. “So, when we were wrestling, I trapped both of his arms. It was an illegal slam because I tipped him over on his face. I didn’t think it was illegal because I didn’t think I had both arms. I thought I had one.
“But when I replayed the video, it showed I had both. I was pretty disappointed. It was the right call. My coach told me, ‘Go out there and wrestle the next match hard. You can either come back and show you can do it or you can quit.’ And I did it.”
When he colored his hair orange last month, he did it for no real reason. He was merely acting the part of a fun-loving teen enjoying a whimsical moment.
“I dyed it because I thought it could build up my confidence,” Zabala said. “I dyed it because everybody in school says it looks cool.”
He carries that look to the mat—no matter what weight class he’s competing at on a given night.
“He’s wrestled a lot of matches at 126—by his choice,” O’Connell said. “He didn’t need to. He would make 120 and would volunteer to go up because he wanted that bigger, stronger guy to wrestle, to give him a better feel.
“A lot of guys—they don’t want to give up their weight class. But, with Trayvon, a lot of times it was to help the team and give us a better lineup. He’s a kid you never have an issue with. He asks, ‘Can I go to the concessions? Can I go to the bathroom?’ ”
The only question left to ask of Zabala: Can he bring home the gold for Joliet Central?