Natalie Cortes wanted to be a wrestler for the longest time.
Well, for a couple years anyway. The daughter of a former high school wrestler at Quigley South and Quigley Prep, Cortes hoped to try the sport when she was at Lane Tech Academic Center, an upper-grade facility connected to the highschool.
But Illinois High School Association rules prohibit junior high athletesfrom practicing with high school teams, and the academic center didn’t have a program of its own. So Cortes bided her time until she was a Lane freshman and Matt Yan arrivedto coach the Indians.
That first year wasn’t easy. All the matches were against boys at 106 pounds, either on the freshman level against suburban teams or on the varsity against Public League opponents.
Yan tried to keep her spiritsup,
“Coach Yan never told me I couldn’t or I shouldn’t,” Cortes said. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to stickit outand keep pushing.’ He wasalways looking out for me.”
Still, it was difficult for Cortes, who said she did not win a single match on the mat — though she had a handful of forfeit wins.
“I definitely was not having a good time,” she said. “I was getting beat up on in practice and matches.
“It was reallydisheartening. There were a lot of times I was wondering what I was doing.”
But thatwas then and this is now. Cortes is coming off a dominant run to the 101-pound state title at the final Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association girls state tourney (the IHSA will start a girls state series next season). She’s looking forward to the next chapter in her career after earning a scholarship to wrestle at Division II Colorado Mesa.
The path to the top of the state rankings and a college career was paved with blood,sweat and a few tears.
It began with anoffseason trip to a camp in Ohio after that rough freshman season,”That was the first time shescored a takedown against a guy,” Yan said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘She’s getting it. She’s going to be OK.”
Sophomore year, Cortes started seeing more success,especially against othergirls. Despite battling a shoulder injury, she qualified for the IWCIA state meet. Then as a junior, Yan namedCortes a team captain and she advanced to state again. But justbefore the IWCOA finals, the world ground to a halt with the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Oh my God, it was so sad,” Cortes said.
Like most everyone, she had some ups and downs while normal life wason hold,
Cortes lifted weights four or five times a week. Yan helped her get barbells and medicine balls. along with three wrestling mats to provide a makeshift practice facility in the garage of her Brighton Park home.
It wasn’t easy. There was down time when Cortes had COVID-19, and also when she had to quarantine aftergoingout of state to compete in preseason club nationals last November. Adding to that, the nature of school during a pandemic was not a good fit for her personality.
“I am not a homebody,” she said. “I do not do well with being at home and doing nothing.”
But eventually the world began to open up. The IHSA allowed prep wrestling to have an abbreviated spring season, starting in April. As she had throughout her Lane career, Cortes wrestled against boys as the varsity 106- or 113-pounder.
And she went unbeaten against girls, pinning her way to the state title match, which she won 4-0. She’s the first Public League girl to win a championship in the IWCOA state series.
Though Cortes is moving on, her legacy will live on at Lane.
“It’’ll be a huge recruiting tool for us,” Yan said. “The way girls join wrestling is they see other girls doing it.”
And in Cortes’ case, doing it uncommonly well.