It was by chance that Caleb Mack got to return to the wrestling mat as a competitor.
Last year, he met Sacramento State wrestling coach August Wesley during the Metropolitan Conference high school tournament. Mack has been an assistant coach for the Hiram Johnson High wrestling team and a full-time student at Sac State for three-plus years.
“I saw the Sac State coach there, and I was like, ‘Wait, we don’t have a wrestling team,’” Mack said. “He said, ‘Yeah, we do.’ Now here I am sitting in Texas.”
The Bulletin got to catch up with the 2005 East Union graduate by phone Wednesday night after his final workout for the National Collegiate Wrestling Association National Championships, which begins today at the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas.
Mack, now 25, took several twists and turns to get to this point.
After a standout prep career as both a distance runner and grappler at EU, Mack earned two top-10 finishes in the California community college state wrestling tournament while at Delta. That helped him garner a partial scholarship to compete for Southern Oregon, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school.
His time there was brief.
“I was recruited to wrestle at 141 (pounds), but then I was told to cut down to 133,” Mack said. “I told the coach I was at five percent body fat coming off the cross country season and wouldn’t be able to make that weight, so he pretty much took the scholarship away.
“I also ran cross country and track at Southern Oregon and could have earned a scholarship there, but after the wrestling season I was pretty committed to coming back to California and just finish up school at Sac State.
“That was a little frustrating.”
To scratch the competitive itch, Mack entered triathlons and marathons. Not willing to give up wrestling altogether, he joined Hiram Johnson High’s coaching staff. That, along with pursuing his degree in education and teaching credential, was Mack’s life for almost four years.
“I was doing well as a tri-athlete and loved it,” Mack said. “As soon as I found out we had a club at Sac State, I kind of figured I was not really done with wrestling. The last time I wrestled it kind of ended on a bad note.”
Sacramento State revived its wrestling club in 2011after 28 years or dormancy, offering Mack and others one last chance to compete in the sport at a high level. With many NCAA and NAIA four-year universities cutting their programs over the years, the NCWA gives high school seniors another option to continue their wrestling careers.
Mack qualified for nationals on March 2 as the “true” second-place finisher out of the West Coast Conference Championships. He lost his first-round match to eventual 141-pound champ Miguel Gallegos of California Baptist University but finished strong en route to third place. With only two berths to nationals available, runners-up must battle the No. 3 placers for the final spot. Mack dominated San Jose State’s Jobel Cabigting, 17-5.
“It felt amazing,” Mack said. “As soon as my match was done I called my dad (John), who wasn’t able to watch me wrestle. I was trying to fight back the tears.”
Mack said that there are quality wrestlers in the NCWA circuit, although there are many who enjoy wrestling as a recreation. He doesn’t expect to see any of those this week.
“The competition varies, but at this level you have to pay $600 to be here,” Mack said. “I’m thinking I’m going to be seeing some legitimate wrestlers out there.”
The double-elimination tournament begins today, with Mack facing Garrett Hildebrand of Penn State DuBois in the opening round. There are 42 entrants in the 141-pound bracket.
“As of right now I’m ranked No. 23 in the nation,” said Mack, who sports a 13-7 record with three pins. “I expect myself to be an All-American and finish in the top seven. I have a lot of work ahead of me but I think it’s doable.”
That he even got to this point is an accomplishment for Mack.
“This is my last tournament ever,” Mack said. “It’s definitely bittersweet, but it’s more sweet. I thought I was done four years ago after Southern Oregon, so I am grateful for this opportunity to go out the way I want to.”