By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
On the mat, the path to Tarik Sutkovic’s second state wrestling title was easier.
Off the mat, things started to come together for the junior at his second Valley high school. Sutkovic transferred from Phoenix Thunderbird to Ironwood and sat out the opening five meets accordingly.
He returned with a vengeance, finishing the season with a 47-0 record and winning his Division II semifinal match via technical fall and the finals by a 22-9 majority decision.
“The first one, I started bawling my eyes out and called my mom. This second time, I went out there knowing I was going to dominate, like it was my state title,” Sutkovic said.
His Division III title as a sophomore was tougher to come by, with 1-0 decisions in the second round and in the finals against senior Jaisen Brown from Show Low, Sutkovic’s toughest Arizona opponent in recent memory.
“It depends on who’s at that weight. My finals match last year was a lot harder. I wrestled Jaisen Brown from Show Low and the score was 1-0,” Sutkovic said.
School life was rough too. Sutkovic and several Thunderbird teachers were locked into adversarial relationships. He decided to leave and Ironwood seemed like the natural place since he knew several wrestlers and trains nearby at the Grindhouse Wrestling club.
After transferring, he also realized he needed to grow up. Most of his talks this year with Ironwood coach Sean Flanigan were more about displaying maturity and mental toughness and less about mat techniques.
Flanigan said he has seen growth in Sutkovic’s classwork and interactions with teachers and students.
“His grades are on track and have improved,”Flanigansaid. “Most of the teachers said he’s fit in really well. It’s gone very well in terms of how he carries himself and interacts with people.”
The Glendale school has welcomed the new student.
“It wasn’t hard adapting. I have a lot of friends here,”Sutkovic said.
In the wrestling room, Flanigan said, Sutkovic came in with a sound work ethic and didn’t act like he was above anyone.
He practiced for a couple months before teammates could see what he can do.
“A lot of the time, really good athletes are not hard workers because they don’t need to be,”Flanagan said.“I’ve been coaching 20 years and had state champions before and I’ve never had anything quite like him.”
Sutkovic said his most fun experience this year, was winning the Peoria Invitational in his first time competing in the Valley’s premier meet.
He still did not get much of a challenge there. District rival Noah Enriquez of Kellis was the only opponent to get within 10 points of Sutkovic.
“I pretty much teched or pinned everyone this year,” Sutkovic said.
One reason for his dominance, Flanigan said, is Sutkovic is the rare big man that focuses on wrestling instead of being a football player moonlighting on the mat.
That, the coach said, shows in the level of technique he displays, which is rare for a wrestler above 190 pounds.
“Other coaches said to me that he wrestles like someone 150 pounds, not 220,”Flanigan said.
Already, the junior is increasing his weightlifting, with plans to go up to the heavyweight class next year.
Before his senior season, he plans to wrestle at nationals in Virginia Beach in April and try out for the world team over the summer.
Colleges will be there, which is one of Sutkovic’s goals—but not his ultimate goal.
“That’s definitely my goal, to go to college (on scholarship). But I also want to go to the Olympics, and take it to the whole next level.”
Flanigan said in this kid’s case, it is not a pipe dream. Sutkovic is willing to take on kids from wrestling hotbeds in the Midwest.
And the more of them he beats, the more realistic his Olympic dream becomes.
“He’s not just sitting around and talking about it. He keeps working,” Flanigan said. “I’m actually kind of curious to see how far he can go with it.”