Effingham County wrestler Mal Santiago looks to make run at region tournament

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Effingham County High School wrestler Mal Santiago goes through neutral drills with teammates Ian Johnsen (on top) and Akenyon Wallace (at the edge of the mat).
Effingham County High School wrestler Mal Santiago goes through neutral drills with teammates Ian Johnsen (on top) and Akenyon Wallace (at the edge of the mat).

Effingham County’s Mal Santiago has an eye on the scale these days and, unlike other wrestlers this time of the season, high numbers don’t necessarily lead to high anxiety.

“My first two years, I just ate and didn’t have to do anything (to make weight),” said the junior, looking to make a postseason run in the 106-pound weight class.

Traditional competition in Region 2-6A will be held Friday and Saturday at Brunswick High. Santiago, a fifth-place finisher at state last season, will be a heavy favorite in high school’s lightest weight class.

The top four at region in each weight class advance to sectionals, and top eight at sectionals advance to the GHSA state tournament.

“During Mal’s freshman year, he could weigh in with his backpack on and make weight,” ECHS coach Nico Guggino said. “Now he’s where he really wants to be, 5 or 6 pounds above his weight class, so he has to cut weight. He’s not the little guy in the weight class anymore.”

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It’s a delicate balance that most wrestlers are grappling with at this time of the season. Drop too much weight and you’ll feel weak, but carrying as much weight as possible (before weigh-in) usually translates to added strength.

To prepare for traditional competition, Santiago spent the dual (team) season wrestling 113- and sometimes 120-pounders. He has compiled a 49-2 record with his only losses in the finals of out-of-state tournaments.

In practice, Santiago works out with Conner Nevin, a 120-pounder who placed third at state at 113 last season.

“I like to keep things simple, things I know, stuff I’m confident in doing. I don’t want to overwhelm myself with a lot of stuff," Santiago said. "Working out with Conner, he’s definitely the best wrestler in the room at Effingham, so working out with him is a big help.”

Effingham County High School 106-pound wrestler Mal Santiago works to get loose from teammate Akenyon Wallace during practice.
Effingham County High School 106-pound wrestler Mal Santiago works to get loose from teammate Akenyon Wallace during practice.

Guggino said Santiago has multiple ways of winning.

“He’s a strong guy and he’s got a motor and he has technique,” Guggino said. “The thing is, he practices hard. He’s always going full speed. A lot of guys don’t like drilling with him because he’s going full speed.

“At 113, he wrestled stronger guys and he competed. Mal rarely gets outmuscled, if at all.”

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And now Santiago is shedding a few pounds to fit into the 106-pound weight class. He said during his first two years, he was 3 or 4 pounds below his weight-class limit, which accommodates natural growth during the season. Wrestlers are allowed an extra 2 pounds (called plus 2) before region duals and another pound before region traditionals.

In actuality, wrestlers can be 3 pounds heavier than their weight class — which is a much bigger advantage for the lower weight classes.

Last year, Santiago carved out a 38-7 record without taking advantage of extra weight.

“I feel pretty good, way better than last season,” Santiago said. “I want to get a good seed at region to set me up going into sectionals and state.”

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Seeding will be key because Buford’s Rylan Ibold, undefeated as a freshman last season, returns as the defending state champion.

“It’s a tough weight class, with one of the better wrestlers at state in that weight class, but Mal has a chance against anybody, it doesn’t matter,” Guggino said.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Effingham County wrestler Mal Santiago to make run at GHSA tournament

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