The most frustrating aspect of Emilio Cabrera’s loss in the 2020 wrestling regional was that it was self-inflicted.
A sophomore at the time and seeking to make his second-straight trip to the state finals, Cabrera had just defeated a local rival — Adrian Sigurani of Eaton Rapids — to reach the match that could send him to states. All Cabrera needed to do was win his next match, and he’d be back at the state finals.
Despite showing as a freshman the year before that he had the physical tools and mental mettle to make it to states, the second time around he felt a weight on his shoulders.
“I was down a point and like, I dunno, it was just everything,” Cabrera said. “So, I just felt like I had so much pressure, you know, as if I was a senior. But in reality I was just a sophomore. I had nothing to lose.”
“He knew that everybody wanted him to repeat and just felt like he had the world on his shoulders,” Cabrera’s coach, Tom Woodward, said.
Cabrera lost that match in February 2020, and as a result, didn’t return to states his sophomore year. A little more than a year later, Cabrera took second place at districts and is headed back to regionals. He’s poised to make a return to the state finals, pending a strong performance this Saturday at the Division 1 individual regional in Grand Haven.
Cabrera’s repeated runs to regionals are clearly not luck, according Woodward. After Cabrera made a trip to states his freshman year — something Woodward had never seen before — he knew Cabrera had a promising career ahead. And after Cabrera missed out on returning to states as a sophomore, he himself was aware of what the problem was last time out — he’d gotten in his own head — and conveyed that to his coach.
At that point, with that self-realization, Woodward knew the heights for Cabrera were a little higher than just reaching states.
“I thought it was pretty significant as well,” Woodward said. “I was like, man if his thinking can slow down like that, then maybe he can start working on being a champion a little earlier than I actually had planned for him, you know?”
And though Cabrera sits on the precipice of achieving the goal of a return to states, the path to this point has been tough.
Covid, of course, complicated proceedings. Woodward said due to various concerns about the virus, the East Lansing wrestling roster shrunk this season. In normal years, there are about two dozen or so wrestlers among the freshman, JV and varsity teams, Woodward said. And this year, East Lansing is down to just a handful of wrestlers.
The situation was almost worse and could’ve cost East Lansing the chance to even wrestle before Cabrera’s brothers joined the team to provide the necessary numbers.
Along with roster attrition, Covid has changed the way the Trojans can practice. With a small wrestling room and limited amounts of contact allowed, each wrestler only has one sparring partner for the whole season. For Cabrera, that has meant a season of only practicing against his long-time sparring partner, Anthony Mitchell.
The worry of constantly training against one person is that each wrestler would naturally learn how to beat that opponent and thus not be prepared to face their opponents and various different styles.
There’s also the fact that sports is about competition and camaraderie. Butting heads day after day with the same person, in a newly-sparse room, could get stale. But Cabrera has enjoyed the work of getting better with Mitchell.
“Having Anthony in the room with me to help practice — you know, I know his moves, so I can counter them, but when he does different moves, it shocks me. It impresses me. So there’s something else I have to look forward to,” Cabrera said. “And that has been a tough situation, just having one practice partner. But you know, I’ve been doing great this year with his help.”
Outside of practicing with the team, and therefore Mitchell, Cabrera spent most of his offseason training on his lonesome.
He couldn’t attend wrestling camps because of Covid. He occasionally trained or sparred with a cousin who wrestles — his brothers are out of his weight class — but mostly he worked alone, focused on the goal before him.
And for Cabrera, that was a fine way to overcome his regional defeat.
“I basically kept my head up and just kept moving forward,” Cabrera said. “I can’t dwell on the past, you know, because dwelling on the past and on that match, it’s not going to take me where I want to be.”
Now, Cabrera seems to be back where he wants to be. Cabrera is ranked No. 12 in Division 1 in the state by Michigan Grappler, a wrestling publication. He entered last weekend’s district tournament with a 25-3 record and placed second, losing by one point.
He returns to regionals, knowing what he’s capable of and that he has the most control over whether he achieves it.
“I overcame that loss and you know, now I just feel better where I am now than where I was before,” Cabrera said.