Hillegas becomes North Hills' 1st PIAA champ
Sam Hillegas said all season his goal was to win a state title. The freshman wrestler from North Hills went to Hershey earlier this month and did it.
He finished his rookie high school season with an undefeated record at 113 pounds (43-0) and captured the first state title in school history, while also earning a Powerade tournament title, a section title and a WPIAL championship.
“It's surprising because he's a freshman,” North Hills coach Jose Martinez said. “But knowing Sam, (it's not surprising) because he's been working for this for years.”
After securing his spot atop the podium, Hillegas was happy, but didn't know what to do with himself, saying the full extent of what he had accomplished didn't hit him until a couple days later.
Hillegas won six Pennsylvania junior titles, so his current accomplishments, while exciting have just helped him focus more now on the next steps in a process he hopes will end with four PIAA titles and an undefeated high school career.
Martinez said he couldn't sense any of the outward nervousness Hillegas said was there at first in Hershey. But the coach added he saw some cautious aggression at the start of matches against unfamiliar opponents.
“My coach is always telling me, ‘This is just like every other match,' ” Hillegas said. “ ‘You've been in multiple finals before. Just treat this like you've treated those. Nothing to get nervous about.' ”
Hillegas had to go into overtime in the semifinal round to defeat Cameron Enriquez of Stroudsburg with a 6-4 sudden victory, his only overtime match the entire season.
For much of the postseason, Hillegas stuck to the plan that had helped him to so much success, but in certain cases, he had no choice but to adapt.
He faced Seneca Valley junior Louis Newell four times this year, including three bouts in the postseason — in the second, WPIAL and PIAA championship matches. Hillegas cited his three most recent matches with Newell and the state semifinal as the toughest during his run.
Hillegas improved on his feet throughout the season, Martinez said, which helped him stave off Newell's attempts to beat him in the neutral position in the PIAA championship match, which Hillegas won 5-2.
Martinez said if Hillegas continues at his current rate, there's no doubt he will leave high school as the best Indians wrestler ever.
But, of course, with three seasons remaining, Hillegas has a long way to go before any such grand pronouncements are made. He and those around him know as much, saying there's going to be more attention on him than ever before now.
“Always want to be hunting instead of being the hunted,” Hillegas said.
The key, according to Hillegas and his coach, will be setting high goals and staying focused on the immediate future, but nothing further.
With the lowest weight class in college at 125 pounds, Hillegas said the idea is for him to move up as a junior from 113 pounds, but he doesn't yet know by how much. The off-season plan is to continue strength training, eat whatever he wants and see where that leaves him, along with adapting to whatever growth spurts come his way.
“Nobody's going to take me lightly. Everyone's going to want to come and beat me now,” Hillegas said. “It's just a bigger target on my back. I just look at that as something, for myself, to motivate me more.”
Jasper Wilson is a freelance writer.