ROCKTON — Hononegah senior Blake Zalapi chuckled when the crowd that gathered for his official signing day after school Thursday was offered congratulatory cupcakes afterward.
The majority of his well-wishers headed directly to the wrestling room to work out.
“Those guys are wrestlers,” Zalapi said. “They’re not eating cupcakes.”
Of course Zalapi has endured a lot more hardship than missing a couple cupcakes on his way to becoming one of the top 220-pound seniors in Illinois. Currently ranked 18th in the nation, he signed with NCAA Division II Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
“It’s awesome to know where I’m going and be able to wrestle my senior season without any worries,” Zalapi said. “Now I can concentrate on getting healthy and having the kind of senior season I hope to have.”
Zalapi did have casts on both of his feet over the summer after suffering broken bones in each. The casts finally have come off, but it’s been a slow process to complete recovery.
“It’s been rough, but I should be back in about four weeks,” he said. “You have to nurse it back to healthy slowly, but surely.”
Zalapi already has put together a terrific resume with the Indians. A three-year letterwinner, he has racked up 104 varsity wins. He was a two-time NIC-10 conference runnerup before winning the title at 220 last season. He’s a three-time Beloit Daily News All-Area First Teamer and twice has reached the IHSA 3A State Championships. He is also a three-time Fargo All-American in Greco and Freestyle, placing as high as third and a two-time Team Illinois participant.
Lindenwood is obviously getting a wrestler with a terrific up-side, Hononegah head coach Jason Glodowski said.
“Blake will leave quite a legacy here,” Glodowski said. “I’m very proud of him and looking forward to his final season here.”
Zalapi joins a Lindenwood program which over the past three years has qualified 15 wrestlers for the NCAA D-II National Championships. Nine have own All-American honors.
“They have a new head coach (Jimmy Rollins), who has been an assistant there (five years),” Zalapi said. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm and I know he wants his first recruiting class to be a very good one to continue to build the program.”
During Rollins’ tenure, the Lions have finished the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association season third or better in the regular season standings for each of the last three years, including winning their first MIAA Championship in 2014-15. The Lions have been conference tournament runner-ups twice in the four years in the league.
“They learned about me from a college recruiting site and invited me down there for a visit,” he said. “I loved the place. I loved the deal they were offering me. I would love to win a national title in college wrestling and I thought that would be the perfect place to do it.”
Zalapi, who will study accounting, said he loves math almost as much as wrestling. When his coaches advised him to spend as much time as possible on the mat, he would have done that anyway.
“My college coaches have told me to try to have the best senior year I can and then get in as many matches as I can in the off-season,” he said. “I’m going to be going to tournaments in Pennsylvania, Virginia Beach, Indianapolis, getting as many (matches) as I can.”