Jesse Delgado had already accomplished more than most of his peers dream of. The former Gilroy High wrestler won a California Interscholastic Federation state title for the Mustangs in 2009, and he went on to earn All-America honors as a college freshman at Illinois.
It turns out the Illini sophomore was just getting started.
Delgado won his first NCAA Division I title with a 7-4 decision over Penn State’s Nico Megaludis in the 125-pound national final Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.
“At the time, it doesn’t really sink in,” Delgado said. “It’s cool to reflect on how far I’ve come.”
His father, Jesse Delgado Sr., was on hand to witness the 2010 Gilroy High graduate become the first Illinois national champion since Matt Lackey in 2003.
“It’s exciting for our entire family,” Delgado Sr. said. “It was a really exciting moment to share with him.
“I’ve coached him, started him out when he was 4. I was able to do the full journey with him.”
Gilroy coach Greg Varela also was on hand to witness a former Mustang win an individual NCAA Division I wrestling title for the first time.
“It’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Varela said. “The main thing being there was to see him and his dad, knowing what they’ve gone through. That, I’ll never forget.”
Delgado finished his sophomore season at Illinois with a 27-3 record, becoming the first Illini wrestler to win Big Ten Conference and NCAA titles in the same year since Lackey in 2003.
“The kid’s worked himself into a champion,” Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan said of Delgado. “We couldn’t be happier, and we’re glad we have him for two more years.”
Delgado earned All-America honors last year, when he capped a 34-7 freshman season by placing seventh at the NCAA meet.
Saturday’s final was tied 1-1 early in the third period, but Delgado got a takedown and three near-fall points to build a 6-1 lead with 43 seconds remaining. Megaludis scored a late escape and takedown, but Delgado used an escape with 15 seconds left to secure the final margin.
Heffernan said he felt Delgado had a bright future after watching his newcomer defeat top-ranked Iowa wrestler Matt McDonough last season.
“I knew early on he was really good, after he beat Matt McDonough as a freshman,” Heffernan said.
Delgado Sr. said his son isn’t satisfied.
“I know he aspires to do more and build himself a legacy,” Delgado Sr. said.
Although the long-term future of Olympic wrestling is up in the air, Delgado said he aims to pin down a spot on the 2016 U.S. team in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m definitely going to try to make the next team,” Delgado said.
Varela said he sensed Delgado’s confidence begin to grow as his Illinois career took flight.
“It was inspiring as a coach to hear the way he spoke,” Varela said. “I was more nervous than he was. I felt real proud of the man he’s become.”
Gilroy High’s wrestling program already had a national name, but being able to claim an NCAA Division I champion only raises that profile. Varela said Delgado’s national title will serve to inspire current and future Mustangs.
“What Jesse’s done, he’s taken the torch and burnt down the entire pathway and said, ‘Guys, the sky’s the limit,’” Varela said. “Any goal is attainable, and he just proved it.”