FORT WALTON BEACH — In truth, Kaleb Williams should probably be wrestling at 182 pounds.
On a good day, the Fort Walton Beach senior tips the scales only a few pounds above that number after one of coach Tobi Marez’s patented grueling workouts. Instead, Williams wrestles at 220 pounds, a weight he has probably never actually recorded on a scale in his life.
But as the area’s last hope for a state medal at the Class 2A Florida High School Wrestling State Championships earlier this month in Kissimmee, Williams, the Daily News Wrestler of the Year, had no time to consider his massive disadvantage headed into the blood round against Okeechobee sophomore Jose Monrroy, an opponent he described as “big but slow.”
He had no time to consider just how improbable his rise had been.
Williams had not wrestled a day in his life until his sophomore year of high school. As a freshman, Williams said former Dandy Dozen O-lineman Joey Pearson routinely clobbered him in football practice.
“He basically destroyed me on the football field,” Williams said.
Pearson was a wrestler, too, claiming third place at state in 2017 at 285 pounds, and he and Williams’ current teammate Eddie Alexis convinced Williams to try out. It would help on the field, and he might just enjoy it.
Williams fell in love — “It’s the only sport I’ve ever done where you get out of it what you put into it.” — but the proverbial light didn’t come on until early February of his senior season.
The Vikes traveled down to Lake Gibson for the Braves Invitational Tournament ahead of the postseason, one last tune up against the best wrestlers in the state and preview of what Kissimmee might have to offer.
“All the great wrestlers at the Braves tournament were the same ones who placed at state in Kissimmee,” Williams said.
That included Palmetto Ridge’s Trillyon Fils-Aime, the favorite and eventual state champion at 220 pounds. Williams was one of only a handful of wrestlers to get him on the mat.
“That match against him is really what made me honestly open my eyes,” he said. “(I thought), ‘This is where I need to get to. This is the best in the state. Let me see if I can replicate that as best I can.’”
When the District 1-2A tournament rolled around weeks later, Williams couldn’t. He fell to Pace’s Wyatt Dillon in the championship match late in the third period, despite beating Dillon in a major decision earlier in the year.
“I knew I had to make a change,” Williams said. “We got back and that week of practice I worked everything I knew I could do … I’m gonna give it everything I have and make sure I’m not sitting in a corner crying, asking myself ‘What have I not done?’”
From that point forward, Marez said Williams was different.
“He was just being more aggressive,” Marez said. “(He was) just imposing his will on his opponent. That’s what you have to do sometimes in wrestling.
“He really started doing that more and more every day, and it really started showing.”
A week later, he was the Vikes’ lone region champion, topping Fletcher’s Ethan Hollenbach 4-2 in overtime. It was the first tournament victory of Williams’ career.
“It felt like the weight of the world was finally off my shoulders,” he said. “It felt like I pulled the monkey off my back. It was an unbelievable moment, and I’ll probably cherish it for the rest of my life.”
But he wasn’t done yet.
Of the seven area competitors to make it to Kissimmee, Williams put together the only winning record on the first day of the tournament, finishing 2-1 to reach the blood round. He topped Bayside junior Zandy Lanier in the opening round, forcing a fall in 2:39, before falling to Lake Gibson junior Tristan Middlebrook 9-2 in the second round. Williams then opened wresltebacks with a 9-8 tiebreaker victory against Gaither senior Sammie Lee to set up a fourth match with Monrroy on Saturday morning.
If he won, he got leave high school as one of the state’s top wrestlers. If he didn’t, he went home.
Feeling surprisingly calm, Williams said Marez had offered only simple advice.
“This match right here, don’t make it bigger than what it is,” Marez told him. “Just go out there, do what you do and we’ll see how it works.”
Monrroy never stood a chance.
Williams launched out of the starting whistle, grappled both of Monrroy’s legs and executed a pitch-perfect double-leg takedown before transitioning into a crossface cradle — the first wrestling move he had ever leared — to secure the pin.
It took just 36 seconds.
“Even though I was very undersized against a lot of the guys, I made sure I could use my speed to get where I needed be to make up for that difference,” Williams said. “That’s really what the difference was between me and (Monrroy). My speed is what got me the takedown.”
Relief flooded through his body immediately.
“I had done it,” Williams said. “I had beaten the people I knew I could, and it was another hurdle I made sure to get over.”
After pinning Monrroy, Williams lost a tight 2-1 decision to Winter Springs junior Marvin Collins with a berth in the third-place match up for grabs before dropping a 7-1 decision to Fort Myers senior Ethan Carr in the fifth-place match to claim sixth place.
It did nothing to diminish his accomplishment.
“To see him achieve so much and make it to the stand was just awesome,” Marez said. “Every time you get a kid on the podium, you just feel great for them. It’s a hell of an achievement.”