In 11 years, Carlisle wrestling has now sent nine wrestlers to the elusive big show at Hershey’s Giant Center.
Last year, senior Muhamed Alic (220) stole the show with his battle-back attitude in districts. After falling into the consolation round, Alic did what he did best — staying true to his self-titled “underdog“ status — and recovered all the way back to a fourth-place finish to punch his ticket to the PIAA Individual Wrestling Championships, something he believed he would never have a chance to do.
Alic’s run ended in the second round of consolations, but there was something — or rather, someone — helping him along the way.
According to Alic, before his final match at states his coaches told him, “Stay true to what you do best. Focus your mind, just come back all the way and win.”
This season, that quote still rings true for the latest Thundering Herd wrestler to make it to the big stage. Freshman Rafael Portilla heads into this week’s PIAA Class 3A Individual Wrestling Championships in the 113-pound bracket.
He currently sits at 34-6 for the season and faced off against some tough competition through sectionals (lost a 10-0 major to Cedar Cliff’s J.J. Wilson for a runner-up medal) and districts (defeated Twin Valley’s C.J. Morton in a 7-3 decision to win bronze).
As for continuing where Alic left off, well, there’s no pressure.
“I think Rafael going this season and Muhamed going last season are two completely different feels,” Herd head coach Joe Wilson said. “Muhamed was a wildcard to get to districts and was about 30-35 pounds less than most of his opponents. He had only been wrestling a few years and had never really wrestled in a big-time match like the ones at regionals. Raf was a sectional runner-up and was right at 115 pounds.
“We had a good feeling each would make it to states, but we were very confident that Rafael would because of his background in big matches.”
Though still only a freshman, Portilla has the experience already that could prepare him for the bright lights and big opponents awaiting him at states. Portilla ended his district run with a bronze medal in the 113 bracket, and he has wrestled in both Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling and Middle Atlantic Wrestling Association.
There’s still some fine-tuning to do before this weekend’s competition, and Wilson and all the other coaches have been helping Portilla go into the tournament as prepared as possible.
“We have been working a lot with Rafael on his shot defense. We felt this was one of the areas we needed the most improvement,” Wilson said. “He is a very coachable kid, so it’s been great to be able to see him be able to get a lot of one-on-one attention from the coaches.”
Along with being as prepared as possible, there’s something else the coaches are trying to get Portilla to do: relax.
“We want him to stay relaxed and enjoy the experience. I feel like he is wrestling his best right now and, as long as he keeps doing that, we have a chance in every match we wrestle,” Wilson said. “He has a very laid-back demeanor and doesn’t worry too much, so that’s always a positive. He is very relaxed and ready to go out there and win matches.”