Five-hundred-sixty-five miles from his hometown of Barrington Hills, Ill., 405 miles from his new home of Durham and 861 miles from Kansas City, Mo. — the site of the 2024 College Wrestling National Championships — Duke sophomore captain Gaetano Console stepped onto the mat for what would be the most momentous match of his young collegiate career.
The Blue Devils were in the midst of a brutal triple-header in Morgantown, W.Va., which included a matchup against heavily favored West Virginia, and Console was Duke’s last chance of scoring points against the Mountaineers. There was only one problem: Console’s opponent was Peyton Hall, one of the best wrestlers in the Big 12, ranked No. 17 in the 165-pound weight class at the time. To avoid a shutout, the Blue Devil sophomore had to defeat a nationally ranked opponent in his own backyard.
Childhood on the mat
Console grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where his father introduced him to wrestling at just six years old.
“I was getting bullied at school, [so] my dad said ‘enough’s enough’ and sent me into my first wrestling practice. He was my first coach,” Console told The Chronicle. “And I just [fell] in love with it right away. I fell in love with the challenge, with how competitive in nature the sport is.”
Despite winning the 2018 Illinois Greco-Roman State Championship as a freshman, college coaches did not see Console as a potential recruit early on in his high-school career. Having skipped a grade, he was smaller than most competitive wrestlers in his year. In his official visit with the Blue Devils as a freshman, a young Console did not impress head coach Glen Lanham.
“At the time I was weighing 132 pounds, and I was just 14,” Console said. “I think coach Lanham looked at me and was like, ‘yeah there’s no way this kid’s gonna wrestle in college.’”
But then, four years later, one of Console’s club coaches called Lanham, urging the Blue Devil coach to give Console another shot. The St. Viator product had stacked victory after victory on his resume since his visit to Durham. Throughout his four-year high-school career, Console had become a two-time IHSA Regional Champion, two-time ESCC All-Conference and finished fourth at the state championship in 2021.
When the talented young wrestler returned for a second visit, several things were immediately clear: Console had grown significantly, showed great signs of maturity and seemed like a leader. As Lanham put it, he looked like “he was living in the gym.” A few weeks later, Lanham called Console to offer him a spot on the Duke wrestling roster.
An immediate impact
As soon as Console arrived in Durham for preseason workouts in the summer of 2022, coaches and teammates alike could tell that there was something different about him. Not only was Console’s talent immediately apparent, but his work ethic and leadership stood out.
“First thing we noticed, he stayed the whole summer, working out and training, which was huge for us,” Lanham said. “And then we saw right away the qualities he brought to us as a leader.”
After a successful freshman year which saw the Duke star earn a 5-6 record, impressive considering his inexperience and placement in the extremely competitive 165-pound weight class, it was a no-brainer to name Console a team captain for the 2023-24 season.
When asked how Console’s leadership style differs from their own, fellow captains Connor Barket and Jarred Papcsy explained that, although each plays a role in guiding their teammates, Console isn’t afraid to chew people out when they aren’t pulling their weight, a sentiment Console echoes.
“I’ve always been someone … who’s been willing to do the work and [give] everybody else an example to base themselves off. I’m not afraid to get on people if I see them dogging it,” Console said. “We’re all in the same room together, [so] we all should be putting in at least the same amount of work. That’s how people get better. Iron sharpens iron. One person works hard, and one other person sees that and says, ‘I want to work harder than you.’ That’s how you build a program.”
Beyond his leadership, Console also brings a unique wrestling style to the mat. A self-proclaimed “big-move wrestler,” he is always looking for any opportunity to land a massive blow against his opponent, securing important points for the team while pleasing the crowd. However, Console is not a one-trick pony. He is always a tough out, wrestling until the final whistle no matter the score or opponent.
A clash of titans
Before his matchup against Hall, Console watched one of the West Virginia star’s earlier matches. Despite Hall’s dominant record and stellar reputation, Console recalls not being impressed by what he saw on film. Free of the fear that often comes when facing a more heralded opponent, the Blue Devil captain was able to focus on the task at hand, rather than the resume or accolades of the man across the mat.
“When I stepped out on the mat, my mind just went blank,” Console said. “The only thing I was thinking was, score points, score points first, score points fast. In my head, I knew I was going to beat this kid. I don’t know, I just had a gut feeling that he had too much to lose and I had nothing to lose.”
The match began fairly evenly, with each wrestler sizing up his opponent, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Eventually, Hall grew impatient and threw a heavy hand towards Console's body. But Console was prepared for the strike, and used Hall’s momentum against him to snap him to the ground. Frustrated, Hall tried to get up, but rose right into a perfectly executed headlock. There was nothing the West Virginia star could do. Console won by fall just more than a minute into the match with a stunning move that earned him the first ranked win of his career.
Console’s smile was contagious as he described his reaction to the incredible victory. “When I pinned him, I immediately stood up and pointed to our crowd. I shook his hand, got my hand raised, and walked off,” he said. “The first thing I did [after that] was go to my dad. I gave my dad a hug and then ran out.”
Reaching for the stars
While Console’s win against Hall may have been a big story in the moment, it’s an even bigger one now. Hall has posted a staggering 21-5 record thus far this season, and is now ranked sixth in the nation in his weight class. In fact, at the time of the victory, Lanham expressed his belief that it could help his captain qualify for the 2024 NCAA Championships in March.
“This year … it’s imperative that he gets to the national tournament,” Lanham said after the win. “We know anything can happen if you get there. It’s gonna be a tough road … but he’s capable of it.”
The road to Kansas City, however, hasn’t exactly been smooth as of late. Console has struggled against some of the nation’s toughest wrestlers in the extremely competitive ACC. Unless he can string together a set victories in Duke’s final matches of the season, there’s a serious chance Console may not make it to the big stage.
But it’s important to remember that Console is just a sophomore, and he will have two more years to qualify for the national championship. His quest to nationals won’t be easy, but the path has never been straightforward for the Duke captain.
From being deemed too small to being overlooked by college coaches, Console has faced serious challenges throughout his career. In each instance, he conquered his hurdles and came out stronger. This setback should be no different. Big goals take work — Console knows that.
“My wrestling goals are not going to change. Get to the national tournament, [become] an All-American,” Console said. “I [have] to be willing to put the work in [practice], and let it fly on the mat. I don’t think anything could really stop me if I [do] both those things.”
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