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Effingham County's Santiago wrestles without fear
Mal Santiago
Effingham County's Mal Santiago sports a 23-5 mark. (Photo by Tanieka Nickell)

SPRINGFIELD —No matter the bout, Mal Santiago expects to come out on the winning side. As a freshman wrestling for Effingham County varsity team, he knows what’s at stake when he puts his small frame on the mat against wrestlers who are 10-15 pounds heavier and much taller than him. He views each match as an opportunity to upset his opponent.

“I’m not afraid of anybody,” Santiago said. “I am not saying I am going to win every match but I don’t go out there thinking I’m about to lose. I think to myself, ‘I am going to slide this kid’s face across the mat.’ ”

“He’s just scrappy,” Rebels head coach Nico Guggino. “He’s athletic and he goes after you. His best quality is regardless of who he is going wrestle, he’s going to fight. If he wins, he wins and if he loses, he loses. He’s not cocky. He just goes out there and goes after you.”

That feeling of wanting to punish his opponent began long ago when was just a fourth grader. After his father took him to a practice at South Effingham, he was instantly intrigued by the nimbleness and aggressiveness wrestling requires.

“I was pretty excited,” Santiago said. “I said, ‘This is going to be fun.’ ”

After the Turkey Duals during the Thanksgiving break, Santiago moved to 15-3 on the season — a record that has surprised him. Now 23-5, he’s inching one step closer to achieving his goal of becoming a state champion. After having conversations with former Rebel wrestlers Isiah Royal and Zekeil Walls, Santiago’s take on this season remains the same.

“I feel like I want to be the next person to win state,” Santiago said. “I had a long talk with Isiah about it. He said I had the best chance to do it.”

But there have been a few disappointments along the way. Santiago wanted to have an unbeaten record.

“I wanted to go undefeated but I knew there were going to be a lot of bigger and strong people out there,” Santiago said.

One of those defining moments took place during the Turkey Duals where Santiago ran into an old foe from Ware County. He remembered the loss he suffered in an earlier meet and was determined to not fall 0-2 to the same guy.

“I lost in the first period at Ware County and it was my first loss,” Santiago said. “I ended up wrestling him again at the Turkey Duals and ended up winning in the third period. He was a lot bigger than me — a lot brawnier. The second time around I wrestled smart.”

Santiago believes it’s his time in practice that has groomed him for each of one his matches. His partner, Cameron Baca, resembles many of the wrestlers he’s faced, which works to his advantage.

“I try to go as hard as I can in practice,” Santiago said. “Sometimes if I get criticized for something I did wrong, I am hard on myself. If you don’t practice hard, you’re not going to go hard. Cameron and I are learning together. It’s been a long venture. He helped me a lot.”

Santiago admires the shrine of wrestling trophies in the hallway at Effingham County, and he can’t help but picture another individual or team trophy to add to the display.

“It would be crazy,” he said. “It would be crazy to win it as a team and a dream come true. It would be cool to have a section over there with all the other state champs.”