Men's Sports Sports

Wrestling grad assistant Joel Gonzalez brings energy and intensity to team culture

Braedan Shea

As the scoreboard ticked down in the final round of Chase Parrott’s match against No. 5-seeded Kristian Rumph at the 2023 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships, one thing ran through his head.

“‘Just don’t choke,’” said Parrott, a Springfield College senior wrestler . “But I was really focused. I wasn’t thinking about all the outside stuff. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t get taken out.’”

Holding a 5-4 lead, all Parrott needed to do was not get taken down. A take-down would result in a two-point swing, giving Rumph the lead with almost no time for Parrott to respond. So, with time running down, and desperately trying to hold onto his lead, Parrott decided to change his gameplan.

Instead of going at Rumph, and building upon his lead, Parrott took a more defensive approach. All he needed to do was stall, and time would run out, granting him a victory.

By winning, Parrott would automatically cement himself as a top-eight finisher in the 149-pound weight class. Any college wrestler who finishes top eight in their respective weight class at a national tournament is honored as an All-American.

With 0:11 left, and still holding on to a one-point lead, Rumph lurched at Parrott and latched on to his right leg. Rumph was trying to get a hold on Parrott, setting himself up for a pivotal take down. But Parrott read Rumph’s intent perfectly.

By pressing his left hand into the right elbow of Rumph, and keeping both feet on the ground, Parrott completely shut him down. Rumph had nowhere else to go but to get up, and reset, and try again. But that opportunity never came, as Parrott bodylocked Rumph until the buzzer sounded.

As the match finished, Parrott thrust both arms in the air in celebration, spinning around completely and acknowledging the crowd. Once the referee raised his hand, signaling the biggest win of his life, Parrott walked directly over to his coaches and wrapped them in a hug – reminiscent of the match-ending hug he had just given seconds before.

“That moment allowed me to be very appreciative,” Parrott said. “It was probably the most appreciative I’ve been of the coaches right after that. I was just super excited and happy to be in the moment with them.”

But he saved an extra hug for one person who played a big role in helping him get to the All-American level: graduate assistant Joel “JoJo” Gonzalez.

“JoJo has been really helpful,” Parrott said. “He’s been a great coach and he’s been a great friend. He’s been just a great teammate at the end of the day.”

Growing up in Willimantic, Conn., Gonzalez was first introduced to the sport of wrestling through his father, when he brought him to Silverback Wrestling Club, a nonprofit organization that provides training to youth wrestlers in the area. A wrestler himself in high school after his football coach made him compete to work on his strength, Gonzalez’s father wanted to share the sport with him.

It didn’t take much time for JoJo to fall in love with wrestling.

“I love contact sports – I did play football – but once I got into high school, I realized that I’m not going to be a giant,” said the 5-foot-6 Gonzalez. “So I started focusing on wrestling a lot more, and it just took off from there.”

And take off he did.

During his tenure at Harvard Ellis Technical High School in Danielson, Conn., Gonzalez completely dominated. In just four years, he became the face of Ellis Tech wrestling, helping propel the program to unprecedented heights. He was a key contributor in the team’s first state championship victory during the 2016-17 season, being the first tech school to ever win a wrestling state title.

His junior and senior years, Gonzalez was unstoppable on the mat. In that span, wrestling at 132 pounds, he was a two-time Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) State Open title winner, a two-time New England title champion and did not lose a single match. He finished his high school career with 97 consecutive victories.

Gonzalez’s high level of play didn’t go unnoticed, either. He considered several Division I schools, including Army, Yale and Harvard. But competing at the that level was not a priority for Gonzalez.

“I knew what I wanted to go to college for,” Gonzalez said. “And I also wanted my parents not to pay anything. So I had to make a decision on really buckling down and focusing, and making sure that I got money to go somewhere where I could cut my debt in half.”

Ultimately, Gonzalez decided to completely bypass competing at a D-I level, opting instead for the Division II American International College in Springfield.

“Going to AIC was probably one of the best decisions I made,” Gonzalez said. “I was looking at a bunch of those (D-I) schools too, but I knew AIC was the place for me because it was family oriented and the coach wanted me. That was a big sell.”

Gonzalez’s high school success carried over well to AIC. By time he had wrestled his final collegiate competition, he had won two NCAA Super Regional I Championships at 157 pounds and 165 pounds respectively, and two All-American honors, his second coming in a runner-up finish at 165 pounds. Gonzalez also won more than 100 collegiate matches.

But the path to success was not easy. For one, he lost the end of his junior season, and the opportunity to compete at nationals, because of COVID. His senior year consisted of just one week of practice, then straight into competition.

One of his biggest battles, however, was his weight. Gonzalez was recruited to wrestle at 141 pounds. After coming into AIC slightly heavier, he was moved to the 149-pound slot, where he would stay for the rest of the season. Still, staying at 149 pounds was not easy.

During his recruiting visit, Gonzalez was met by a roster of almost 15 wrestlers. By the time his first season concluded, it had dwindled to four. This meant that his drilling partner, instead of being a fellow teammate, was a 197-pound graduate assistant. Keeping his weight low while practicing every day with someone of that size is tough.

With help of a nutritionist, Gonzalez was able to stay at the 149-pound weight class throughout his sophomore year. But by junior year, things changed.

“I had a nutritionist and was doing well – really well,” Gonzalez said. “I was eating every day. I felt good. I was feeling awesome. I had started off the season rippin’, and then my nutritionist left to go to East Stroudsburg University, because she’s a wrestler as well. Then my weight started to fluctuate.”

Ultimately, the change in weight classes wasn’t much of a problem. A large reason for that is the drive and passion that Gonzalez had for the sport, something that he acknowledges he adopted from his father.

“Seeing (my father) from a young age and then seeing him coming up is where [my work ethic comes from],” Gonzalez said. “He’d wake up at 4-4:30 a.m., get ready, go to work by 5-5:30 a.m., work all day, come home, shower, then shoot up to Mass. He’d practice with me for an hour to an hour and a half, go home, and then do the same thing over and over again.”

When his collegiate career came to an end, Gonzalez decided that he wasn’t done with his education quite yet. He wanted to earn a masters degree in Criminal Justice, in hopes of becoming a police officer after his schooling. And he knew exactly where he wanted to go next.

His coach at AIC, Rich Hasenfus, was a Springfield College alum who knows current Pride head coach Jason Holder. Before the season, Gonzalez was named as a graduate assistant coach. Holder brought Gonzalez in not only for his expertise and motivation, but also for his intensity.

“[Gonzalez] brings a lot of energy to the program and to the wrestling room,” Holder said. “He’s passionate about the sport he loves, and loves being in the room helping the guys.”

One of the athletes that Gonzalez spent a lot of time with was Parrott. Every Monday, Parrott was unable to get to the team practice because he had class during that time from 4:15-6:15 p.m. So, Parrott would text Gonzalez, asking him to meet in the room at 3 p.m., getting work in before practice.

“He sacrifices a lot for the team,” Parrott said. “He always puts the team in front of himself, and that’s what makes him a great teammate and great asset to the team.

Without those practices and help from Gonzalez, Parrott believes that he wouldn’t be the same wrestler he is today.

“A lot of times you psych yourself up for a match,” Parrott said. “I just try to tell myself, if you just wrestle like you’re wrestling JoJo, you’re never gonna lose. With him, you have got to have a perfect position and do everything perfectly. He’s just elevated my game to where everything I do is more intentional. Everything I do is more well thought out.”

Gonzalez tackles coaching the same way he did competing, and the same way he tackles life: all-in on effort, just like his dad.

“You don’t want to be at work every day. You don’t want to be in school every day. You don’t want to be in a classroom every day, right? Nobody does. But if you show effort, you’re gonna get something out of it,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what I always strive for. I want to get better every day. It doesn’t have to be a huge jump from yesterday, just be 1% every day.”

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