By NICK KOSKO
He may be little and you might not know his name, but he will be remembered. Jahleel Williams is not the biggest name in the wrestling community, but to the wrestlers and coaches at Cedar Creek High School, Williams has one of the biggest hearts of any athlete.
The 120-pound senior, who took third at the District 29 tournament, qualified for the Region 8 tournament this year for the first time in his career.
Cedar Creek does not qualify many wrestlers for the Region 8 tournament year in and year out the way teams such as Egg Harbor Township or St. Augustine Prep do. In fact, Williams was the sole qualifier for the Pirates in 2017, and it gave the team all the more reason to come out and support.
After winning his first match, Williams dropped his next two matches and his career was over in a flash. While the ultimate goal was the state tournament, Williams gave everything he had to compete in one of the toughest tournaments in the state. Just to get there he needed a 3-2 victory over Holy Spirit’s Dominic Sacco in the third-place match at districts.
Nobody on the Cedar Creek roster ever doubted Williams’ grit in crunch time.
When Williams came out on top against Buena Regional’s Junior Laportez, 3-2, in the opening round of regions, he was ecstatic to just keep on wrestling.
“Wrestling was never my whole life like a lot of the great guys in the region and state tournaments. All of them dedicated their whole lives to it,” Williams said. “It was just a part of me, but I always put every ounce of energy I had into the sport and when I was able to win that first match, it was such a great feeling. My coaches have always been in my corner and I will always be thankful for that because they made me believe that I could hack it anywhere, with anyone.”
Head coach George Cappuccio gave the credit to Williams’ work ethic and attitude approaching practices and matches every day throughout the season. He declared Williams the guy to represent the program in the postseason.
“This was a big year for us because we had to deal with losing guys to graduation and stuff like that, and having a different team was a challenge, but Jahleel was always there,” Cappuccio said. “Jahleel stepped up to be our guy this year and since we became a (varsity program) we’ve sent at least one guy to regions. He was the man this year.”
Looking back on Williams’ third-place match at districts and opening-round match at regions, Williams had to beat guys he had lost to earlier this season. Cappuccio points right to Williams’ desire to get better each practice, and it became a domino effect on the rest of the team.
“As coaches, we always say if you push yourself you can be great and go deep (in the postseason tournaments),” Cappuccio said. “I think kids half-believe us, but he bought into it and the rest of the wrestlers saw that, too.”
Leaders are generally identified if they are loud and in-your-face type of guys in the wrestling room, and lead by example. Williams certainly is not loud, but he does lead by example.
Being just 120 pounds, one might not think a guy his size could be a leader on a wrestling team. The sport requires dedication and mental and physical toughness.
But check off all three for Williams. Those qualities led him to a 24-9 record during his senior season.
“I am really quiet and I’ve never been that so-called ‘hype guy,’” Williams said. “I led this team by example and by what I did on the mat and how I carried myself. I always worked hard and wanted to keep my guys working. It was all through action and not talk.”
Cappuccio never minded sitting back and watching Williams take control by how hard he worked throughout a practice and by winning during matches.
“He is one of the quietest guys you will ever meet, but Jahleel knows when to speak up,” Cappuccio said. “He is non-stop in the room and he is always leading by example for the rest of the wrestlers. He’ll get banged up and deal with injuries and pains but he never complains and always fights through those things. Jahleel always does what is best for the team.”
Want an even better example of Williams’ work ethic than winning rematches?
Look no further than the first match of districts, when Williams sprained his ankle and had to wrestle the rest of the tournament with an injury. Of course, the third-place medal would be his at the end of the day, but Williams was not out of the woods yet.
Throughout the next few days leading up to the preliminaries of regions on a fast-approaching Wednesday night, Williams needed to use crutches during school and somehow still made it to practice.
“We basically had to tape it up, roll after roll,” Cappuccio said. “He did what he could during practice and got ready to win a match in the tournament. It was awesome to see.”
As for the future, Williams hopes to look back and feel like he left some kind of impression on the Cedar Creek wrestling program. Cappuccio, meanwhile, thinks there might be a future in wrestling for Williams and will never forget his contributions.
“It was tough to see his season end, but I told him he’s the type of guy who has the physicality to wrestle at the next level,” Cappuccio said. “Maybe not Division I, but Division III programs always need tough, hard-working guys like Jahleel. So many kids who wrestle their whole lives don’t go as far as he did. He really did something special for this program.”
“I just hope what I did motivates the rest of the guys and shows that they can make it to the next level,” Williams said. “I never had the natural wrestling talent, but I just kept working on getting better. These guys wrestle more than I do and if they happen to take any of my advice, I hope these guys continue to work hard because they can go as far as they want.”
Follow Nick Kosko on Twitter @nickkosko59
By NICK KOSKO