Mason Cantu sees no reason to wrestle defensively. He’s one with something to prove.
The Hart senior 145-pounder entered his West Michigan Conference tournament title match Feb. 5 against defending state champion Max Brown of Whitehall feeling no pressure. Cantu won that bout, 6-1, and he gained even more confidence.
Cantu went on to capture district and regional titles, and now his sights are set on the big prize: The state championship March 5 at Ford Field.
It will not be easy. Division 3 defending state champion Aiden Davis of powerhouse Dundee looms as the No. 1 seed and he’s unbeaten on the season. Cantu will be on the opposite side of the bracket in the two-day tournament, however, so provided he survives the tests along the way, he’ll likely get his big opportunity.
“He’s top four all day,” Hart coach Brad Altland said about Cantu. “If he wrestles well, we could see him in the finals. They’re all tough, you know, but I think there’s no reason why top four is not realistic and a finals show is definitely there.
“If he makes it to the finals, you always have a chance. The No. 1 kid is tough, but so is Mason and he’s wrestling tough.”
How tough is Cantu? He’s 47-1 this season, with the lone loss coming to Stevensville Lakeshore’s Micah Hanau, 5-0, in a 152-pound match at the Jan. 8 Allendale Invite. Hanau won the Division 2 state title at 130 pounds two seasons ago.
Cantu enters the individual state finals with a 167-23 career record. He is a four-time state finals qualifier. As a sophomore, he piled up a 54-4 record and lost to a two-time state champion in the 135-pound title match in Division 4. As a junior, he went 36-4 and placed third at 145 pounds in Division 3 after falling to a three-time defending state champ in the semifinals.
How well-rounded is Cantu? The second son of Mark and Amanda Cantu carries a 4.01 grade-point average, and he has signed to wrestle at Division II University of Indianapolis, where brother Noah Cantu currently competes as a 125-pounder.
How strong of a leader is Mason Cantu? He’s a three-time team captain, who guided Hart back to team state finals weekend for a third-straight year. The Pirates fell to Imlay City, 45-24, in the Division 3 quarterfinals Friday, but the program is on very strong footing now.
“Lots of pride. We have a quote on our board that says, ‘If you want to be a champion, you need to make everybody else around you a champion.’ That’s something that we live by,” Cantu said. “We think a lot of our success kind of shows it off, that everybody puts in the work. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best guy in the mat room or worst guy in the mat room, as long as you’re working and becoming better, it means a lot.
“For us, we haven’t historically been a powerhouse in the sport of wrestling. That’s kind of been on the come-up in the past couple of years with these teams making state (finals) trips. There’s a lot of pride to it – we don’t like losing and we really love winning.”
Cantu was not always the “best guy in the mat room.” Entering high school, he was a self-described “pudgy kid,” whose 5-foot-7 frame carried 170 pounds. Altland saw something in Cantu, though, and eventually so did assistant coach Rocky Smith.
Cantu said that Altland and Smith had confidence in him before he had confidence in himself. Now, Cantu makes his last high school state finals trip feeling like he can compete against anybody. Being around others with equal mindsets and striving to be the best at what they do has made all the difference for him.
“I mean, I walked into the wrestling room my freshman year and we have guys like Robbie Altland and my brother and stuff who were hardcore wrestlers and that’s what they did,” Cantu said. “They beat the crap out of me every day and that’s what made me better was just having guys in the mat room that could push me and had the equal mindset of wanting to be the best. We were all working for success and the same purpose.”
When Hart’s wrestling team went through some “inner turmoil,” in Brad Altland’s words, Cantu was one of the guys who took the reins.
Altland said that when Cantu graduates, it will be tough to replace the wrestler and even tougher to replace the leader.
Altland’s son, Robbie, is Hart’s all-time winningest wrestler with 203 victories and he’s now at Division II Davenport University. Noah Cantu is No. 2 on the list with 202 wins.
Mason Cantu will never catch those guys on Hart’s career victories list, but his ultimate goal is to become a state champion, just like Robbie Altland was.
When Cantu beat Brown in the WMC tourney, it was his first time facing the Whitehall standout. Cantu wanted to find out where he stacked up with the best. He learned that he can compete with the best.
Against the best wrestlers, Cantu knows that the margin for error is very slim. He also believes he has nothing to lose, so he may as well be aggressive and go after it.
“I’m feeling really good. I think I’m in pretty good shape to make a good, solid run there,” said Cantu, who is slated to face Clinton’s Joey Preston in the opening round Friday. “Right now, I’m ranked second. The kid ahead of me, he’s a tough kid – a really tough kid. He’s returning state champion. But he’s not unbeatable, and I think if I keep my confidence, go there and wrestle my match and keep my head up, there’s no reason why I don’t make it to the finals.
“I think I have a good shot of winning it all. I’ve just got to execute, though. Can’t let up. Got to just keep focused and not get too ahead of myself – a trip to the finals is by no means guaranteed at all. Kids can come out of nowhere and take you out. Got to stay focused, got to do what I do best and can’t slip up.”
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