Being a freshman in high school is a big adjustment for any student.
Being a freshman wrestling on the varsity? That only ramps up the heat even more. Just ask Cary-Grove sophomore standout Mike Cullen.
"Being a freshman last year I remember going out there and having real bad anxiety," he says. "I just wanted to go out there and be done with it and just get by each match. As a freshman, you aren't as mature. It's tough when you are wrestling kids who are older than you and more mature and tougher than you. I won two IKWF (kids) state titles. Nothing quite compares to the high school atmosphere. I was kind of a big dog in IKWF, but I got to high school and it was a different story. I didn't do bad last year, but it was a lot tougher. I learned real quick I was no longer the top dog."
Age and confidence differences aside, Cullen handled himself quite well as a ninth-grader, finishing with a 44-4 mark, a Fox Valley Conference title and a trip to the state tournament.
And the 113-pounder has picked up right where he left off. Cullen, now a two-time FVC champion, won his first regional title last week and brings a perfect 39-0 record into this weekend's Class 3A Barrington sectional. He's now 83-4 in his brief high school career.
"Honestly, my technique is all the same, but I have a mental edge now," says Cullen, whose younger twin brothers, John, and Sean, are on the team as well (both compete at 106 pounds; John Cullen also qualified for sectionals). "I'm not a freshman anymore. Being a sophomore, I have a little more of that mental edge on people. I'm a little more confident when I go out there. I'm not as nervous and anxious. Last year I felt like a freshman and an underdog a lot of the time. I would get super uptight. I wasn't used to the high school wrestling experience. Now I feel more comfortable and when I feel more comfortable, I'm able to open up and be more offensive and work all my stuff."
Cary-Grove coach Ryan Ludwig has seen a transformation in Cullen this season.
"Mike came in as a freshman as an extremely strong wrestler," Ludwig said. "He's really matured this year. His training always has been good. He's a lot more focused now on and off the mat. He had a lot of big goals last year and got Downstate for the first time. That's a big thing to get down there and wrestle in front of everybody. This year, he's even more prepared for it."
Cullen also credits the extensive work he has put in over the years at clubs such as The Wrestling Factory and Overtime for helping prepare him to wrestle in high school.
"I've trained with some of the best clubs," he said. "I have to give both clubs a lot of credit for being able to come in as a freshman and do as well as I did."
Ludwig notes coaching a wrestler of Cullen's experience and talent is a tad on the different side in terms of approach.
"He came to us with a lot of experience," the coach said. "He's extremely impressive. It's exciting and fun to have the opportunity to coach him. We're always looking for the little things that can help him even further. The last two years we've been able to give him those things that have helped him get ready for what's ahead in two weeks."
Cullen has been wrestling since the age of four and comes from a wrestling-centric family. In addition to his twin brothers being in the room with him, Cullen's older brother, Brian, was a three-time state qualifier (finishing second at 103 pounds for Prairie Ridge in the 2010 Class 2A tournament) and is now wrestling at the University of Illinois. Cullen's father, Michael, wrestled at Palatine High School and was a two-time state qualifier.
"It's fun being with my brothers," Cullen says. "We get to spend more time together and at the same time we get to go at it in the room. We're a tight family. It's in our blood."
Ludwig loves the fact the three brothers are together in the training room, frequently working with each other.
"It's been a pretty special season because of that," Ludwig said. "The three of them work out a lot together. Michael takes his brothers under his wing and works on stuff with them. He has extremely high expectations for his brothers. It's real cool to see how close they are. It's fun getting to know the three of them. They all have different personalities and react different to coaching. They push each other and work extremely hard when they practice together."
John Cullen brings a 31-10 mark into the 106-pound division at Barrington. He placed third at the regional to qualify.
"I've been pushing myself a lot in the room with my brother," he said. "Mike likes to push me harder and harder to get better. It's been hard, but you get trough it. My brother has been a big part of my improvement. Just wrestling with one of the best people in the state is fun in it's own way. I'm getting one of the best looks of anybody. I'm not going to see anybody that is better."
Improved footwork has aided John Cullen as the season has gone on.
"I work on taking shots and not letting people get angles on me," he said. "My off-season work has helped me. I'm not just working during the high school season. You have to work hard all year."
John Cullen also enjoys the family's wrestling pedigree.
"Everybody in the family knows how it is to wrestle," he said. "We all come to practice and do the same thing and everybody relates to each other. Even my dad wrestled. He's the one that got me into it."
John Cullen knows he will be facing a tough sectional field this weekend, but is more than prepared for it.
"I just have to keep motivated and focused and not let anything get to my head," he said. "I can't look too far ahead. I have to keep a clean thought and never doubt myself. You never really lose until you stop trying."
Ludwig feels John Cullen has a good shot to make a trip to Champaign as a competitor next week.
"I absolutely think he does," Ludwig said. "He's a very talented freshman who does a lot of great things. He has been exposed to a lot of big matches over his career and knows what he needed to do to move on."
As far as big brother goes, two of Mike Cullen's losses in his high school career occurred last year in the state tournament. He says another thing that's aided him this season is having a defined road map in terms of what he would ultimately like to accomplish.
"I've set my expectations extremely high," he said. "Throughout the season it's a steppingstone to get to that major goal, which is to win a state title. I go out there with that attitude in my matches. I know if I go out there relaxed and I keep working my stuff, that will help me get to that next level eventually."
Mike Cullen has been attending the state wrestling finals in Champaign at Assembly Hall since he was 6. He'd like to get back to Champaign and work toward what he witnessed so much as a child -- getting on that first-place medal stand.
"I watched some of the best guys in our generation who are competing in college now," Cullen said. "I idolize those guys. It's always been in the back of my mind. It's what it is all about. It's something I have been striving for since I went down there the first time. "