OXFORD — Sean Mondello’s athletic future will feature a springboard, but his current priority is a mat.
The Talawanda High School senior is a prep winter rarity, a two-sport standout in diving and wrestling, and he’s got legitimate state ability in both.
But he’s signed with Miami University to continue diving at the next level, so he’s focused on a strong finish to his wrestling career.
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“I’ve been wrestling for a long time,” Mondello said. “I might try a few national tournaments before I dive in college. There’s no doubt I’d like to finish with a bang.”
Mondello the wrestler is approaching school history. The 160-pounder is armed with a 105-32 career record and is 14 wins away from 2006 graduate Patrick Truster, Talawanda’s all-time leader in that category.
Brave coach Brian Bolton believes Mondello will get there. Bolton started coaching Mondello when the youngster became involved in the sport more than a decade ago.
“He was the kid from Day 1 that loved the wrestling room, the smell of it, everything about it,” Bolton said. “He’s a kid that’s got it real bad for wrestling, and those are one in a thousand. He’s a great kid, great grades, great family. He’s just very focused.”
Mondello is 12-1 this season. His lone defeat was a 1-0 decision at the hands of Marysville’s Walker Heard in the 160-pound semifinals of the Southwest Ohio Wrestling Coaches Association Coaches Classic at Harrison.
“He was on my offseason Virginia Beach Duals team,” Mondello said of Heard, a multiple state placer. “We knew how each other wrestled. He just got the one escape that mattered.”
Mondello made it to the Division II state tournament as a sophomore, going 0-2 and getting pinned twice at 152 pounds. Talawanda moved into Division I last year, and Mondello failed to get out of the district.
“I kind of choked last year in districts … but 160 was one of the toughest brackets in the state,” Mondello said. “I just didn’t prepare well enough for that point of the season. That was just my fault. I have to try harder this year if I want to make the state podium.”
He’s expecting Harrison’s Brett McIntosh, the Coaches Classic champion, to be his top competition in this part of the state. They seeem headed for a showdown at the Southwest Ohio Conference tournament at Northwest on Feb. 16.
Mondello said La Salle’s Dillon Walker and Vandalia Butler’s Jestin Love are also among the best Southwest Ohio wrestlers in the D-I 160-pound weight class.
Bolton said Mondello has been laser-focused since last year’s district showing.
“After the district tournament, his family packed up and went to Florida on a vacation to get away from wrestling,” Bolton said. “As soon as they got to Florida, Sean was on his computer and found an open tournament and was back in action in Florida on the vacation. He hasn’t missed a weekend since.
“Sean has all the tools. He has the best technique. He has the best strength. He has the speed. He has everything that you want in a top-notch, state-qualifying wrestler. As long as we keep our health and keep our focus, I expect to see him on the podium this year at the state tournament.”
Mondello’s progress as a wrestler hit a major snag when he was an eighth-grader. He did not wrestle that year after a football injury left him with brief — yet terrifying — paralysis.
“I broke my back,” Mondello said. “I put my head down and hit a kid helmet to helmet, and I fractured six vertebrae. It was like a straight-line fracture through all of them. I started running off the field and my body just stiffened up. The only thing I could move was my fingers. I was just laying there on the ground. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.
“It lasted until they got me in the ambulance. We were going to Liberty Children’s, and it lasted about five minutes in the ambulance. I started getting movement back in my arms and stuff. It was a weird feeling.”
He ended up wearing an upper-body brace for about six months. Obviously Mondello was medically cleared and he moved on, though he said he still deals with lingering inflammation.
Mondello played football his freshman and sophomore years before giving up the sport. It gave him more time to focus on wrestling.
He likes the individual nature of wrestling and diving as opposed to football.
“It’s just easier to rely on myself in a solo sport,” said Mondello, who also competed in track last year and might do it again this spring. “In football, the blame’s always being passed around. In wrestling, there’s no blame — it’s just you or the other guy. I like taking what I did wrong and trying to make it better. I don’t think I was very coachable freshman or sophomore year, especially in football. That was a tough time for me with our lack of success and where our team chemistry was at that point.
“My coachability was going down in football, but in wrestling, I feel like it’s always just gone up. I was always able to take criticism in wrestling. I was able to accept what I did instead of what other people did.”
He’s been to the Division II state meet twice in one-meter diving, finishing 18th as a freshman and 10th as a sophomore. Talawanda moved to D-I last year and Mondello wasn’t able to make it to state, and he won’t be able to get there this year due to conflicts in the postseason diving and wrestling schedules.
THS sophomore Samuel Hool is expected to be a state contender. Hool has already broken Mondello’s six-dive school record.
“He’s very good,” Mondello said. “I’m really proud of the kid.”
The Southwest Ohio High School Swimming & Diving Classic is scheduled for this weekend, but Mondello won’t be part of the diving competition. He wanted wrestling to take precedence this year, so he’ll be on the road with the Brave wrestlers at the Sycamore Invitational on Saturday.
Bolton said Mondello is not a one-man show for Talawanda wrestling this season. The program’s numbers are up and include some quality wrestlers like Clayton Detherage (182), Terell Wills (220), Nick Engelhard (138) and Nathan Detherage (285).
Mondello said there are similarities when it comes to wrestling and diving.
“The flexibility goes together really well,” he said. “Spatial awareness is really nice. You know where you are on the mat, you know where you are in the air. It’s weird that (they) go hand in hand, but when you’re in a scramble, you can just know where your body’s moving. It’s pretty nice to feel the same thing in the air as well.”
In terms of his collegiate choice, Mondello said it wasn’t an easy decision to pick diving over wrestling, but he feels good about choosing Miami. He’s hoping to help the Talawanda wrestling program as a coach next year.
Freshman Kenna Mondello swims for Talawanda. Sean is close to his sister and said she’s been a factor in his continued diving success.
Mondello plans to major in biomedical engineering at MU. Prosthetic design and medical technology are among his career possibilities.