Rebounding Gateway grappler Wilkins signs with Cleveland State University
Gateway senior A.J. Wilkins faced adversity during his final season with the Gators varsity wrestling team, as he missed the better part of two months while recovering from a foot injury.
He was 6-1 before the injury, and he was able to get back in the wrestling room right before the end of the regular season.
Successful section and WPIAL tournament runs propelled him to the state tournament for the first time, as he closed out his varsity career among the state's best.
Now, Wilkins is ready for the next level, and he recently signed on to continue his education and wrestling career at Division I Cleveland State University.
“The coaches took about three hours out of their day to give me a tour,” Wilkins said.
“They made me feel like they really wanted me and believed in me. I really liked that, because in high school, my coaches believed in me and knew I could do well. I really feel at home (at Cleveland State).”
The Vikings program was 4-10 in dual matches overall in the 2012-13 season, and they finished sixth in the Eastern Wrestling League tournament team standings.
“Going to a Division I program has always been a goal of mine,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins, who will probably start his collegiate career at 125 pounds, said he will join a program with a lot of experienced wrestlers to look up to.
One of those competitors is junior Ben Willeford, who won the 125-pound title at the EWL tournament and competed at nationals in March.
Willeford and one other Cleveland State wrestler, redshirt freshman heavyweight Riley Shaw, were the first Vikings wrestlers to make it to nationals since 2009.
Wilkins said Willeford probably will take his redshirt next season. He won't compete but will be able to practice. For Wilkins, that's two full seasons of work in the room with an accomplished national qualifier.
“He faced a returning NCAA champion at nationals and has faced a lot of tough guys in the EWL, so it will be good for me to work with him,” Wilkins said. “He had a tough draw, but he made it to nationals, and that's awesome.”
Wilkins said he's not a very big 125 right now.
“I need to get a lot of mass on me to even be successful at 125 in college,” Wilkins said.
“They are all way ahead of me at this point, so I have to get to work.”
Wilkins said the Cleveland State coaches gave him a lifting schedule, and he's also been working out this spring at his brother Mike's gym in Pittsburgh.
Mike Wilkins, a Woodland Hills graduate, is a Gateway assistant wrestling coach and professional mixed martial arts fighter who trains at the Renzo Gracie gym on Smallman Street in the Strip District.
A.J. Wilkins said he's gotten a lot of extra training and tips from Warren Stout, a two-time PIAA state-runner up who also wrestled at NCAA power Lehigh.
“He really knows his wrestling,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins finished his high school career with a 69-26 record, including a 17-5 mark as a senior.
He went 1-2 at his first state tournament, and he won his first consolation bout after losing by pinfall to eventual 113-pound state champion Ethan Lizak of Parkland in the first round.
Wilkins got to states on the strength of a dramatic four-match winning streak in the 113-pound consolation bracket at the WPIAL championships.
He won a section title as a sophomore and competed at WPIALs three times.
“I definitely will miss the coaches, who put in a lot of time to help me,” Wilkins said.
“I will also miss my teammates who helped me in the practice room and helped me get ready for my matches. It's a big family, and I am going to miss those guys.”
Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.