The nerves are still there for Daniel Del Gallo. It’s the doubt that’s gone.
The former Gardiner Area High School star and current University of Southern Maine wrestling standout made two Division III wrestling championships before, but there was always a nagging feeling of insecurity accompanying him on those trips. One that lingered in the back of his mind, telling him that the competition was too good, the stage was too big and that he was fortunate to be there.
Now it’s time for trip number three, the last in his college career. This time, Del Gallo has expectations for himself. And this time, the senior takes the mat in La Crosse, Wis., he will be ready — rather than hoping — to meet them.
“I think everyone who wrestles at the national tournament has to deal with some nerves,” he said. “But where maybe before it was ‘Oh, I don’t think I should be here,’ doubting myself, this year I’m nervous but more excited. I’m excited to go out and compete, knowing I belong at this tournament and I deserve it.”
That confidence manifests itself in bolstered expectations. After going 2-4 in the tournament as a sophomore and junior, Del Gallo has his sights set on its later rounds — perhaps even its latest one.
“Hopefully I can come away an All-American, and I plan on going deep into the tournament and placing high,” he said. “I want to win a national title, and that’s not something that’s out of the ballpark. That’s something that I’m shooting for.”
All-American status goes to wrestlers finishing in the top eight. Del Gallo was a win away last year. Coach Michael Morin, who will be with Del Gallo in Wisconsin, thinks he can get over the hurdle this time.
“He’s consistently competed at a pretty high level, but every year we’ve definitely seen improvement and growth,” Morin said. “And this year, we’ve really seen a lot.”
Del Gallo qualified for another national championship by again qualifying at the Northeast Region tournament. Nineteen teams from throughout New England and New York compete, with national berths going to the top three finishers in each class. Del Gallo was second at 149 pounds, but said the runner-up finish wasn’t as gratifying as the chance to make a national impact that came with it.
“I’m really happy that I qualified again, but it wasn’t the end goal,” he said. “It was like a stepping stone to what I really sought out to do this season.”
The nationals have been in Del Gallo’s crosshairs since the season began, and the senior has worked on fixing the flaws that have tripped him up in earlier appearances.
“He’s really opened up as far as getting to his attacks a lot sooner and more frequently,” said Morin, who’s tied atop the USM career wins list at 131 with — go figure — Del Gallo. “He’s scoring a lot more points, he’s winning matches in a much more dominant fashion than he has in years 1, 2 and 3. This year, he hasn’t had all that many close matches … and he’s wrestling tough competition. It’s just due to the fact that he’s elevated his game.”
Del Gallo, who has twice won the Elite 90 award as the competitor at the nationals with the highest GPA, said he’s faster and stronger than he’s been in years past, but emphasized that his mental approach has become his biggest asset. While he had a tendency before to try to wrestle to the scoreboard, he’s eschewed that mentality in favor of a more aggressive mindset — one that has paid off far more often than not.
“If I focus on winning and not my wrestling, then anything can happen,” he said. “That’s been the biggest shift for me, it’s been like that all season. I’ve been focusing on that every week, just going out and wrestling hard, not going out and winning matches. … The wins are going to come if I wrestle to the best of my ability.”
He’s seen the consequences of straying from that theme, and on the biggest stage, no less.
“Last year at the national tournament I changed my style up from how I was wrestling all season, because maybe I was a little more conservative, tried not to get myself in any tricky situations,” he said. “And that backfired, I didn’t win the matches I could have.”
That won’t be the story this time. Whether he’s the first man out or the last man standing, Del Gallo isn’t leaving anything to chance in his final event.
“I’m wrestling the best I ever have,” he said. “And at the right time.”
Drew Bonifant — 621-5638