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Wearing an expression so intense at times that it bordered on becoming a scowl, Jesus Raya stood behind the coaches chairs and watched his Southern Nash High wrestling teammates in action Saturday during the Firebird Duals.
Nursing a slight injury, Raya took the day off instead of hitting the mat but, at a solid 195 pounds, he looked every bit like the polished senior that he has become for the Firebirds. Raya has won all but one of his 22 matches this season, assembling the best record on the team, and claimed the 195-pound championship at the Grant Wilder Memorial Invitational tournament at Rocky Mount High in early December. Raya has emerged as a contender for that weight division in the 3-A Big East Conference and is a strong bet to place in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A East Regional next month and earn his first trip to the state championship tournament.
Yet just three years ago, Raya was an obese freshman who didn’t take much very seriously. He weighed close to 300 pounds and was far from being the model student that Firebirds head coach Eddie Coble swiftly assures that Raya has become.
“It’s all about him because when he came in as a freshman, he was not a good kid at all,” Coble said flatly. “I mean, he was terrible. Just behavior, (he was) sneaky. He was not a good kid. And he started wrestling and started believing in what we were teaching and coaching and all of a sudden his whole frame of mind — he did a 180 (degree turnaround).”
The first thing Raya had to do was lose weight — a lot of it. The maximum weight for the NCHSAA heavyweight division is 285 pounds and Raya was over that when he tried out for the wrestling team in 2015.
“It started to get into my mind when I was a freshman here,” Raya said. “I wasn’t happy where I was at. I wanted to do something big. I had heart; I knew I could do it. I know that a lot of people think that I’m the hardest worker. … I went out there and showed them what I’ve got and that was effort.”
It didn’t happen right away and the first thing Raya had to do was change his attitude, Coble said. The veteran Firebirds coach didn’t think the rotund freshman would stick around very long.
“I didn’t,” Coble admitted. “The first time I met him, I thought, ‘This kid, he ain’t gonna make it.’ I really thought that at first. Really the first month that I coached him I thought that he ain’t gonna stick around. But he kept sticking around and sticking around and he loves it. He absolutely loves it.”
Raya had to love wrestling because, despite going to practice every day, he didn’t get into a single match all season. But that just served as a motivation for Raya.
“I said to myself that you’ve just got to believe in yourself and come back and do something different,” he said. “If nobody believes in me, then prove them wrong. I proved them wrong.”
Raya benefitted from practicing daily, dropping about 25 pounds during the wrestling season but he still hadn’t really developed a healthy lifestyle.
“His freshman year, throughout the year he lost a little bit of weight anyway, just from the workouts,” Coble said. “But then that summer, he really got into the working out part of it and he dropped down and he kept dropping.”
Raya showed up nearly 50 pounds lighter the following August as a sophomore when he decided to run cross-country for the Firebirds, also coached by Coble. He also started paying attention to what and how much he was eating.
“I started eating less. It was portion control,” he said. “I had to start eating less because I used to eat a lot. I had to switch out and eat the right things like vegetables and fruits and water, all sorts of things. I had to control the hunger. It wasn’t easy at the beginning but I started losing it from time to time and I just kept continuing (to lose weight).”
Raya credited wrestling assistant coach Kenny Jones for helping him keep his focus on dropping weight.
It wasn’t easy for a kid who “was always big,” Raya said. But he didn’t turn to any weight-loss gimmicks or special diets, instead just eating smart.
“No, I don’t do any special diet,” he said. “You’ve just got to eat right. The amount of food and the right food and always do something to be active.”
After years of stuffing himself at mealtime and snacking on junk food, Raya had discovered that he liked this new way of eating.
“I try to maintain my weight,” he said. “I don’t eat that much junk food like I used to. It’s easier now. I don’t eat like I used to. Foods like pizza or McDonald’s, I wouldn’t eat that much now. I mostly just stick to the diet.”
The weight continued to come off. Raya wrestled at 220 pounds his sophomore season when he went 17-13 and finished third in the Big East tournament and earned a trip to the regional. When he came back for his junior year, Raya was down to 195 pounds. He suffered a broken shoulder during the season that limited him to 17 matches, going 9-8, but he again finished third in the Big East and this time won a match at the regional.
“He has a tremendous work ethic,” Coble said. “He also ran cross-country for me as a sophomore, junior and senior, which also helped him lose weight too. But he’s THE hardest worker in whatever sport he’s in. He might not be the best but he’s going to outwork you and that’s what has put him over the top — the things he’ll do outside the wrestling room to get better. He just does so much.”
Raya has become a much better wrestler, using his experience and technique on the mat. He knows this is his final season, which he hopes ends in Greensboro at the state championship tournament.
“I have a chance to go out there do something big this year and finish strong. So I think I can do something big,” he said.
SENSE OF PURPOSE
Along with Raya’s physical transformation came a sense of purpose, especially in the classroom, and a maturity that he simply didn’t possess as a freshman.
“In those years I’ve never had a kid, as a freshman turn into what he has as a senior,” Coble said. “He’s changed his attitude more than anything else. Everything about him has changed and even his teachers will tell you how much he has changed from his freshman year to his senior year. I don’t know the words to use but they’ve said he’s just wonderful.”
Raya, who has two much younger siblings, said that his parents, Jesus and Candelaria Raya, are happy for him.
“They just wanted me to be happy in life and go out there and do some great things,” he said.
One of five seniors on the Firebirds roster, Raya has become a role model for his teammates.
“His teammates — I won’t say they love him because he’s hard on them — but they look up to him because of what he does,” Coble said. “They see how hard he works. I’ve had kids on the team come up to me and say, ‘I want to be like Jesus in two years.’ I’ve told Jesus that and it makes him feel good that he’s a leader and people look up to him.”
Raya hopes to attend Nash Community College next year and possibly become a teacher and a coach someday. He certainly has the experience in diet and exercise that would make him a valuable instructor.
His advice to those wishing to make a change in their lives?
“Go out there and do something big because anybody can do anything,” he said. “Nothing’s impossible. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”