CROWN POINT — Jesse Mendez has been on a rocket-like ascent in the wrestling world for the last three years. A spring that included few more national tournament titles and honors had a quick systems check pause in the form of a meniscus tear, but the Crown Point senior-to-be is counting down, again.
Mendez was cruising through the USA Wrestling U23 National tournament bracket in May in Nebraska. No opponent, in an event that includes college wrestlers, scored on him until the semifinals.
He met Northwestern All American Chris Cannon in the best-of-three finals. Cannon took the first match 13-2. Mendez evened it 9-8 in the second.
“I really believe I can wrestle with anybody in the world. I was going there to see where I’m at with these college guys,” Mendez said. “I wasn’t going there just to take part. I wanted to win it.”
The third match lasted only 32 seconds. Mendez suffered the knee injury and couldn’t finish. He said he knew it was torn immediately. It’s been an issue for a few years, Mendez said, occasionally locking up on him during a practice or workout. He could always just grab his toe and put it back in place.
“When it happened that time, I couldn’t pop it back in. It was unfortunate but I’m glad it happened there and didn’t happen at worlds,” he said. “I think it was bound to happen at some point.”
Former East Chicago Central and Purdue coach Scott Hinkle put Mendez in touch with Dr. K. Donald Shelbourne in Indianapolis, who scoped the knee. The problem is now resolved. Mendez said he was fully released about a week ago.
“I was really stingy on my physical therapy and icing it, keeping my leg elevated. Now we’re getting back into it,” he said. “I’m back 100 percent with workouts, lifting, trying to win a world title.”
WIN magazine gave Mendez the Junior Hodge Trophy in June. The Hodge Trophy is college wrestling’s answer to football’s Heisman. The junior award is given to the nation’s best pound-for-pound high schooler of any class, and Mendez is the first Indiana athlete to win it.
Mendez won the Junior Hodge after a junior season that included his third state title and numerous regional and national awards.
“It’s awesome. I want to be the most dominant wrestler to ever do it so (the Hodge trophy) is a big stepping stone and was a major goal,” he said.
He also took the 61-kilogram freestyle title and outstanding wrestler award at the USA Wrestling junior world team trials this spring in Iowa. He’ll wrestle with the national team in Russia next month.
“I want to come back with a gold medal,” Mendez said.
It’s been an eventful summer, too. Mendez led the Crown Point Fourth of July parade.
“It’s awesome to see that I have a strong community behind me. It makes working hard, trying to reach these goals a lot easier,” he said.
Between rehab and workouts, he took his first college recruiting visits to Purdue and Ohio State. He’ll visit Michigan, Arizona State, Iowa and Penn State in the fall.
He plans to make a college commitment in November or December, which is a little later than usual for a high-profile wrestler. Mendez said his recruiting process was pushed back about 15 months by the pandemic.
“I’m just trying to figure out what coaches I’m compatible with and where my best fit will be,” he said. “I want somewhere that’s going to make me the best wrestler possible and make me a better person. I’m just trying to find those people who are going to help me reach my goals and help me become a man in the process. I need the partners around me and a good education, as well.”
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