TAMPA — Alonso coach John Moore still recalls the day more than three years ago when the 4-foot-11 freshman with no wrestling experience approached him.
Tony Milanes, a full 100 pounds of chutzpah, never had slipped into a singlet, but he sensed the sport was custom-made for him. Though jockey-sized, he was athletic with a martial arts background. Besides, this was wrestling, not so much a one-size-fits-all sport as it was a fit for all sizes.
"It was kind of the only sport that being small wasn't a disadvantage," he said.
So Milanes bluntly asked Moore the prerequisites in becoming the Ravens' 103-pounder. Beat the guy in front of you, Moore replied. Milanes didn't at first, but Moore sensed he would, and soon.
"I could tell he was real intense and everything," the coach recalled. "He was a sponge for knowledge from the first day."
By December of his freshman year, Milanes had cracked the starting lineup. That was a school-record 146 victories, two district titles and one state medal ago.
"I think I did know that he was somebody special," Moore said.
Subtract Brandon, where many master spladles before simple math, and Hillsborough County is rife with kids who never strapped on headgear before high school. Tuesday in Alonso's gym, Moore pointed to his 20 or so wrestlers practicing fireman carries on mats and said none had wrestled before their freshman years.
To excel, one must be committed, and a quick study. Milanes, who owns a 40-5 record this season and boasts a 5.4 weighted grade-point average, is both. Raised by a single dad, he has flourished the hard way — via hard work.
"(Wrestling) was different because a lot of practices are easy, and wrestling practices are pretty tough," said Milanes, who these days stands 5-5, wrestles at 119 pounds and placed third at last weekend's prestigious Ippolito Invitational. "So I really liked the challenge of it as well as being pretty natural at it."
On the mat, he's relentless. In the classroom, he's nearly peerless. Milanes, who will graduate among the top 20 in his class, boasts a schedule that includes advanced-placement courses in calculus, statistics and physics, as well as an honors English course. He already has received a nomination from U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis for an appointment to the Air Force Academy.
Even lunch is a gastronomic practice in discipline. The Milanes menu during the season typically includes a box of raisins, an apple and can of tuna.
"That's the thing about him. He's an intense guy," Moore said.
"He is so disciplined and so self-motivated, such a self-starter," said his dad, Victor. "I tell other parents everyone should have at least one Tony because from my end it really doesn't require a whole lot."
For a spell, it did. At age 5, Tony lost his mom, Nancy, to leukemia. Solace and security was found in the company of Victor, an FBI agent who raised Tony and his older brother, Max. Together, son and dad coped mutually, finding catharsis in indoor and outdoor rock climbing and training in various forms of martial arts.
Among them: Brazilian jujitsu, a grappling-style form stressing various locks and holds to force a foe into submission, and an ideal complement to wrestling.
"When he lost his mom, I was, in a sense, put in a position where I felt I had to bond more than I otherwise would have," Victor said. "We bonded anyhow, but I think we bonded more, we were together all the time. It was constant togetherness, constant closeness, and through the years that just never changes."
Tony's latest indoor climb: this week's Class 3A, District 6 tournament, where two-time state champ Rossi Bruno of Brandon is the overwhelming 119-pound favorite. Bruno beat Tony at Saturday's county tournament. Nonetheless, Milanes shapes up as a strong contender for a berth at state, where a top-six finish is conceivable.
Some say he already possesses a mettle of gold.
"He's come a long way," Moore said.
3A-7 at Palm Harbor University
Schedule: First round, 10 a.m.; finals, 6 p.m.
Teams: Chamberlain, Clearwater, Countryside, East Lake, Gaither, Northeast, Palm Harbor University, Pinellas Park, Seminole, St. Petersburg
3A-6 at Riverview
Schedule: First round, 11 a.m.; finals, 5 p.m.
Teams: Alonso, Bloomingdale, Brandon, Freedom, Newsome, Plant, Riverview, Tampa Bay Tech, Wharton
2A-10 at Dixie Hollins
Schedule: First round, 11 a.m.; finals, 6 p.m.
Teams: Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Jefferson, Largo, Leto, Osceola
2A-9 at Plant City
Schedule: First round, 11 a.m.; finals, 5 p.m.
Teams: Armwood, Blake, Durant, East Bay, Hillsborough, King, Plant City, Sickles
A-10 at Indian Rocks Christian
Schedule: First round, 2 p.m.; finals, TBD
Teams: Admiral Farragut, Berkeley Prep, Calvary Christian, Clearwater Central Catholic, Indian Rocks Christian, Lakewood, Northside Christian, Robinson, St. Petersburg Catholic
A-9 at Jesuit
Schedule: First round, 11 a.m.; finals, 4 p.m.
Teams: Jesuit, Lennard, Middleton, Spoto, Steinbrenner, Strawberry Crest, Tampa Bay Christian, Tampa Prep