THE SUN IS OUT in full force on a midweek day. Most teenagers, no doubt, are busy washing away the school-year stress in pools, hanging out at malls or playing at local parks.
Relaxing days are few and far between for Jason Welch. On this day, he is sequestered in a nondescript building on the Las Lomas High School campus searching for ways to build upon his already legendary status.
It is through such dedication and single-minded determination that Welch, a 2008 Las Lomas graduate, has carved out a phenomenal wrestling career and prompted predictions of continued greatness.
"Jason is the best wrestler ever to come out of Contra Costa County," says Cory Salmon, the longtime head coach at the Pleasant Hill Wrestling Club. "If you stretch it out beyond the county, he certainly merits consideration as the best (to come out of the Bay Area)."
Before dismissing Salmon's assertion, it's worth noting that he coached Casey Strand at College Park in the early '90s, when Strand set the national record for career victories.
Salmon also witnessed the awe-inspiring exploits of Antioch's Jason Verduzco, Independence-San Jose's Jacob Palomino and Eric Guerrero and James Logan's Stephen Abas, among others considered in the elite.
"After Casey Strand, I thought I would never see someone as good as him come through our area again," Salmon said. "Lo and behold, along comes Jason Welch. There are similarities between him and Casey, but Jason went well beyond what Casey accomplished."
Welch, 18, is a few months removed from capturing his third straight state title, in the 160-pound division. That places him in a group of only 14 in state history. He also is one of only five wrestlers to reach the state finals all four years — he placed second his freshman year. Even Strand admits to Welch's superiority.
"The reason he's so good is that nothing fazes him," said Strand, who works out with Welch on occasion. "He knows he's going to win. It's something that I wish I had. Sometimes I talked myself out of being the best. I've never seen anyone walk over his opponent as often as Jason does."
Welch, who received the Junior Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's top high school wrestler this year, fielded a slew of scholarship offers from wrestling-rich colleges across the land. He settled upon Northwestern for its combination of athletics and academics.
When it comes to wrestling, Welch doesn't settle for anything less than dominance, as evidenced by his 194-7 record in high school.
So it is that on a July afternoon, he has trekked to Las Lomas for a weightlifting session and an informal workout with Las Lomas assistant coach David Yi, followed by a spirited session against Brian Cobb, 27.
Cobb holds the distinction of being one of the last wrestlers to defeat Welch. That came during the prestigious Midlands Invitational held at Northwestern last December, when Welch became only the fifth high-schooler invited in the open event's 45-year history.
Welch posted a 6-3 record and sixth-place finish at Midlands. Cobb handed Welch his second defeat along the way.
"I still don't know how I beat him," Cobb says during a break in action. "I just got lucky and eked it out in the end."
On this day, Cobb is instructing Welch how to incorporate more moves into his vast repertoire. Before long, Welch is using the moves on Cobb and making it look natural.
Cobb, a mixed-martial arts champion, ventured to Walnut Creek from Bakersfield as a favor to Yi. He said it's Welch's desire to improve that motivates him to help out in any way possible.
"His talent level is as high as that of anyone I've ever worked out with," said Cobb, a standout at Marquette and Cal State Bakersfield while Welch was in elementary school. "Jason can do things that most people can't. He creates moves on the fly, he's very elusive, and it's difficult to keep a solid position against him. It's going to be exciting to see how far he takes this in the coming years."
Such uncanny ability has Cobb and others throwing out the possibility of Welch making the U.S. Olympic team in 2012.
With that in mind, Welch intends to compete at Northwestern his first three years, redshirt his senior season and then concentrate on making the Olympic team.
"I wouldn't put it past Jason," said Jim Keck, College Park's current wrestling coach. "He is capable of anything in this sport. The sky's the limit for this kid. He's on track."
However, the road upon which Welch travels is littered with once-promising careers that succumbed to burnout, injury or heightened competition.
"There's a big burnout factor," Salmon said. "Fortunately, Jason is taking it real slow right now. He is going to be inundated the next four years. Yet, if the Olympics are his goal, and he chases it down, I could see it, for sure."
Cobb has witnessed numerous wrestlers flame out before reaching goals that once seemed attainable. He said Welch doesn't exhibit any of the telltale signs of someone on that path.
"He's not going to get burned out," Cobb said, "because he likes the sport too much. He just has to get in the wrestling room every day and get better. There are very few guys who can stay with him in the neutral position. If he gets better on the bottom, he's going to be damned near impossible to beat."
John Welch doubles as Jason's father and primary coach. He has gone to great lengths to guard against burnout. Jason also played football and soccer at Las Lomas as a means of keeping things fresh.
John Welch also has surrounded his son with a cadre of coaches who find new and creative ways to instruct Jason while keeping things lighthearted and, most of all, fun.
Even so, Jason Welch thinks he knows the best way to avoid burnout.
"It's hard to burn out when you're winning," Welch said. "But I remember my sophomore year losing a match and wanting to quit. So, I know that next year and beyond is going to be hard."
Wrestling in the Midlands Invitational and the U.S. Open Nationals in Las Vegas provided Welch a glimpse into the future. At Midlands, he wrestled against the likes of Cobb and Illinois' Mike Poeta, the No. 1-ranked 157-pounder in the nation.
"I don't know where his peak is," John Welch said. "If he has peaked, he's going to be a decent college wrestler. I don't think he has peaked, though. He's getting there. Mentally, he's good enough. Technically, he's close. Physically, he just has to get stronger. It is going to be curious to see what happens."
By all accounts, Welch lacked the experience and strength to handle Cobb, Poeta and other older wrestlers. However, everyone is confident that Welch will close that gap as he matures.
"He's already got his feet wet," Keck said. "He has wrestled against and defeated kids who are Division I champions. Jason has always been a kid who wrestled above his level. He won't have any problem meeting the next challenge."
Contact Steve Corkran at email@example.com.