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Effingham Magazine

Wrestling with Success: Former Effingham County High School State Champion Maintains Winning Ways in College

Wrestling with Success: Former Effingham County High School State Champion Maintains Winning Ways in College

Story by Stephen Prudhomme | Photography by Todd Wood

Isiah Royal has grappled with success and pinned it in convincing style. At Effingham County High School, from 2014-2016, he won three consecutive state wrestling titles.

At the next level, he’s far surpassed giving it the old college try. At Newberry College—competing against bigger, faster and stronger wrestlers—Royal finished second in the country in 2019, won a national championship in March and is a strong favorite to win another national title.

In March, Royal, competing in the 141-pound weight class, edged Joey Bianchini from St. Cloud State 7-6 in the finals in St. Louis to capture the Division II championship. He was the school’s first individual national champion since 2010 and fourth in its history.

Against the undefeated Bianchini, Royal was the first and last to record a takedown. The last one, coming late in the third period, gave him the victory and allowed him to achieve a longtime goal.

 “It was amazing,” said Royal, 23, who entered the field as the No. 4 seed and had to win three matches before making it to the finals. “It meant a lot. It was always my dream to win a NCAA championship. It’s a blessing.”

The win was especially rewarding for Royal, who came up a bit short two previous times.

In 2019, he lost a majority decision in the finals against Jose Rodriguez of Notre Dame College. The following year, Royal entered the national tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., as the No. 1 seed. The day before his first match, Royal was in his hotel room when the Newberry coach came by and informed him the tournament, along with all other NCAA sports, had been canceled due to the pandemic.

In typical fashion, Royal didn’t let that setback keep him down. He said he continued to work hard with his training while focusing on his goal of winning a national championship.

A New Coach and a New Opportunity

Deral Brown became head wrestling coach at Newberry in early October. That came following a stint at King College in Bristol, Tenn. He knows something about Royal, having served as assistant coach at Newberry when the former first joined the team.

“Isiah hasn’t had too many losses,” said Brown, commenting on Royal’s chances of winning a second consecutive national title. “He’s a three-time All-American. He’ll easily finish as one of the best at Newberry.”

Royal’s biggest attribute, according to his coach, is his motor and pace. “Isiah doesn’t stop or sit on a lead,” Brown said. “He has the will to win—heart, strength and speed. He’s a tremendous athlete in general.”

As to his wrestling skills, Brown said Royal’s great on his feet and in the neutral position. The coach added he’s good at sticking to his game plan, has three to four good moves and is pretty relentless.

“He’s fun to watch,” Brown said.

Royal’s championship earned him recognition from the South Carolina House of Representatives in spring. The House passed a resolution honoring Royal for an outstanding season and championship and for bringing pride and recognition to the Palmetto State.

Adjusting from High School to Collegiate Level Wrestling

Coming out of high school, Royal wrestled at 126 pounds. Thanks to a growth spurt and working out, he got bigger and moved up in weight class in college and qualified for the national tournament as a freshman.

“It wasn’t a huge adjustment going from high school to college,” Royal said. “I worked hard. It’s mostly a mental game. I made sure I stayed positive and confident.”

Now, moving up to the 149-pound class, Royal said he likes his chances of winning a national title.

“I’ll be better at 149,” said Royal, who has wrestled at 141 since he’s been at Newberry. “I won’t be cutting weight,” added Royal, who has been cutting it as a wrestler for 10 years.

From Football to Wrestling

Royal played football in middle school and as a freshman at ECHS. Nick Guggino coached Royal on the football team at Effingham Middle School. He recalled that the youngster was a little thing but liked his athletic ability and built and encouraged him to join the wrestling club in the seventh grade. 

Royal waited until the following year to join the club and, according to Guggino, did well. “He had a good work ethic,” he said. “That was the main thing.”

When it came to choosing between the gridiron and mats, for Royal, the latter scored a takedown.

“I love wrestling,” Royal said. “You only depend on yourself when you’re on the mat. It makes you more responsible, tougher and disciplined.”

In his sophomore year of high school, Royal won the state championship in the 106-pound weight class. Moving up to the 113-pound weight class as a junior, he won his second consecutive state title. Royal topped off his high school career in grand style by capturing the state championship in the 126-pound class.

Royal’s success is no surprise to the man who saw something in a slight youngster and steered him toward the mats.

“I have never in my 25-plus years of coaching had an athlete practice as hard as Isiah,” Guggino said. “His passion for success and perfection is second to none. Not only did this attitude make him an excellent wrestler, but it elevated those around him as well. He set an example for our program that still exists today.”

Humble in the Midst of Greatness

Guggino said Royal is a humble person who, despite his success, never looks down on anyone. Although he won’t embarrass anyone on the mats, the coach added, Royal is all business.

“Athletes like Isiah do not come along very often,” Guggino said. “I consider myself fortunate that I was able to coach him.”

With all his success in high school and college, this will likely be Royal’s last year as a wrestler. A psychology major, he wants to earn a master’s degree and coach wrestling at the college level. Although he looked at wrestling in the Olympics and believes he can compete at that level, having defeated a number of world team wrestlers, Royal said it would be exceedingly difficult given the need for sponsors and a commitment to train year round.

Even if the Olympics aren’t in his future, Royal has had quite a ride as a wrestler.

“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” Royal said. “Wrestling has helped me grow as an athlete and person. I’ve learned that things don’t always go as planned. When they don’t, you work harder and focus on improving. I have no regrets.”