By JEREMY HINES
Two years ago Thomas Penola didnâ€™t crack Zionsvilleâ€™s varsity lineup. Last year he had a mediocre season, going 24-13. A week ago he entered the prestigious Al Smith Classic as an unranked, unseeded junior competing in arguably the toughest weight class in the tournament.
Now, just a week later, Penolaâ€™s career has taken a drastic turn. He won the Al Smith at 170 pounds, beating four ranked wrestlers in the process. When the new state rankings came out this week, Penola had one of the biggest jumps in the rankingâ€™s history. He went from not being in the top 16, to his current rank of No. 3.
â€œI was really surprised when I saw the rankings,â€ Penola said. â€œI didnâ€™t know what to expect. I had beaten some good guys at the Al Smith, but I generally donâ€™t even look at rankings. I just listen to my coaches and go out and wrestle.â€
Penolaâ€™s coaches are perhaps the ones surprised the least about his sudden rise into the stateâ€™s wrestling spotlight.
â€œThomas has had a great year,â€ Zionsville coach Jared Williams said. â€œWe knew going into the Al Smith, with the competition that was going to be there at that weight, that weâ€™d have a chance to see where he stood. I thought he could win it. I really thought that, going in, heâ€™s there with anyone.â€
Penola knocked off No. 16 ranked Jordan Rader (14-2) in the opening round of the Al Smith. He later defeated Mike Edwards (10-5), No. 10 ranked Jared Swank (19-2), No. 9 ranked Tavonte Malone (24-1) and No. 5-ranked Zack Fattore (15-2) to win the championship.
Penola is currently 20-1 on the season. Both he, and his coaches, point to his vigorous off-season training as the reason for his success this season.
â€œFor me, the biggest difference was that I stopped playing football and focused on wrestling,â€ Penola said. â€œThe coaches I have been working with are great. They helped me focus on working on my feet. I went to camps, I worked out at CIA. I got to wrestle some guys that have really pushed me. Before this summer my weakness was wrestling on my feet. Now, Iâ€™d say, itâ€™s my biggest strength.â€
Coach Williams credits Penolaâ€™s work ethic and desire for the turnaround.
â€œI really thought last year that he would make a big jump,â€ Williams said. â€œI donâ€™t think quitting football really had anything to do with it other than he came into our season healthy. He had one of his knees worked on last year and missed all of freestyle and folkstyle season. He felt behind and really wanted to focus on wrestling during the fall. I wouldnâ€™t encourage anyone to stop playing football. If you want to make a big jump, it can happen in the spring and summer.
â€œThomas is hyper focused, and thatâ€™s why he is where he is today.â€
This year Penolaâ€™s goal is to place high at the state meet. He acknowledged that it wonâ€™t come easy. He is focusing on each match he wrestles and knows he canâ€™t get to the point where he overlooks anyone.
â€œI see what happens with him in the room,â€ Williams said. â€œI can feel it when I wrestle with him. Heâ€™s up there with anyone. He has that state-placing potential. But weâ€™ve talked, and he has a lot of things that have to improve for him to be in a state title conversation. But heâ€™s going the things he needs to do.
â€œHeâ€™s as coachable as any person Iâ€™ve ever had. He takes in everything we, as a coaching staff, tell him. If we say we need something to happen, heâ€™ll do everything in his power to make it happen. He does everything right, from nutrition, to rest to working hard in the weight room. Heâ€™s a leader for our team. And, the reason he loves wrestling is because he knows itâ€™s a sport that rewards those that work the hardest.â€
Penola also credits having teammates that push him in the room as a reason for his success.
â€œGuys like Sam Gobeyn, Matt Wertz and Josue Hill all have the same mind set and are improving because of their work and the way they push each other,â€ Williams said.
Outside of wrestling Penola loves to hang out with his family, which includes two sisters and five brothers. He enjoys watching football and wrestling. And, he says, he loves eating when it isnâ€™t wrestling season.