Gilroy High wrestling coach Greg Varela tells a story dating back six or seven years. In it, Varela, who is in his third year at the helm and 10th overall with the program, poignantly describes a handful of young wrestlers training together in a garage as he guides the way with the help of a couple other coaches.
In a powerful and symbolic culmination of the years of hard work, three of them – sophomore Paul Fox, sophomore Nikko Villarreal and senior Willie Fox – took center stage one win away from a state title, and two basked in the spotlight inside Rabobank Arena and walked away as champions Saturday night in Bakersfield.
Villarreal and Willie Fox became the first state gold medalists at Gilroy High since 2009, lifting the Mustangs, who had six wrestlers in the tournament, to 94 points and a fifth-place team finish at the 2012 CIF State Wrestling Championships.
“It started with just the Foxes, Nikko, (Live Oak sophomore Isaiah Locsin) and (Gilroy junior) Leif Dominguez in a garage. It was just us, you know? We would do our own thing. We would spend five, six hours a day during the summer training in the garage,” Varela said, fighting back tears moments after Willie Fox’s victory.
“I believed in them and they believed in me. Over the years more people started training with us. Now we have a big club. Just to see it all come (to fruition). It was the plan all along for them to be in the finals. They all did it. I’m so happy right now.”
Clovis set a team-point record with 256.5 in defending its team title. Villarreal was named the recipient of the Dave Schultz Champion of Champions award for his performance – the first sophomore ever to receive that distinction.
Locsin, who wrestled with the Gilroy Hawks as a youth, also won a state title Saturday night. The Morgan Hill native, who was ranked No. 2 in the state heading into the meet, defeated No. 1 Jonas Gaytan of Clovis, 5-4 in the 113-pound final.
One week after the Mustangs convincingly posted their 10th straight Central Coast Section championship, the team’s three individual section titleholders continued in top form over the two-day battle of wills.
In a much-anticipated 132-pound dual, Villarreal challenged three-time state champion Alex Cisneros of Selma. Cisneros, who was on the verge of becoming just the second wrestler in California to win four state titles, defeated Villarreal twice earlier this season – 4-3 in double overtime at Doc B and 1-0 at Mid Cals.
Villarreal wanted the rematch. Said he was ready for it. And then it happened. Villarreal stunned Cisneros, scoring five points in a frenzied final 10 seconds of the third period to win 5-3 and exited the mat with the crowd still buzzing.
“It came from nowhere,” Varela said. “Nikko’s got that will to win. He’s got zero fear. It’s unheard of to score one point on a guy like that in 10 seconds, let alone five. I don’t think he’s been thrown his entire career.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Alex. He is a winner. I respect him to death. But I’m glad it was our kid.”
Trailing 3-0, Cisneros, who is ranked No. 1 in the state and in the nation, looked bound to make it four state titles. However, in a make-something-happen-blink-of-an-eye, Villarreal threw Cisneros to his back for two points and also earned a 3-point near fall count to win it.
Villarreal etched the moment in history right after the whistle, waving four fingers on one hand and shaking one on the other, signaling the denial of Cisneros’ fourth.
“Alex is a really good guy, and I didn’t think I was going to get it,” Villarreal said. “But when you’re down that many points, you just have to do something. It was a big deal that I stopped him. It means a lot. I train to be one of the best guys in the state. It was all worth it.”
It was Cisneros’ first loss of the season. He also received a rousing ovation in recognition of his prep career.
“A 3-0 lead with 10 seconds left? That’s as good as a 40-point lead with two minutes left in a football game,” Varela said, illustrating Cisneros’ ability to counteract just about any move. “But that’s Nikko. He found a way to win. That was a great moment.”
No. 1-ranked Fox used three takedowns and a 2-point reversal to claim the 145-pound crown over De La Salle’s Alex Abono, 8-1.
“I’ve been waiting for this all year,” Fox said. “I just think about the past four years that I have put into this. I don’t regret any of it. I may not have liked it back then, but this makes it all worth it right now.”
In the staging area, beneath the stands of the dark arena, the magnitude of Fox’s triumph was evidenced in the pure, unadulterated emotion expressed by Varela and GHS principal, coach and former wrestling Olympian Dr. Marco Sanchez, whose tears summed up the moment.
“He’s gotten the short end of the stick for a long time. And he got it done,” Varela said as he reached over to hug his wrestler. “I’m proud of him.”
Fox’s trials and tribulations through his four-year career at GHS have been documented. He finished runner-up three times in a row at CCS before capturing the title last week. He was eliminated in Bakersfield in the quarterfinals the past two seasons. But with a strong supporting cast in his corner, Fox was on a mission this season, and reached the top of the mountain with one final stride Saturday.
“I’m just very proud of him,” Sanchez said, taking a pause in between words. “I’ve seen his highs and lows. It’s awesome. He wrestled a perfect match.”
Both Fox and Villarreal went 5-0 for the weekend.
Villarreal needed another come-from-behind effort just to reach the finals. Earlier Saturday, Trailing No. 3 Javier Gasca of Kingsburg 1-0 entering the third Villarreal spent much of the period trying to earn an escape point. He did that, but moments after gave up two points via takedown. A tangled exchange ensued. As time ticked to 20 seconds left in the match, Villarreal had to make a move. And he did. He managed to reverse Gasca to his back and get the pin with eight seconds left.
Paul Fox (126) also endured a hard-fought semifinals match Saturday morning, in which he suffered a fractured left collarbone. He wasn’t himself in the finals. Though he did his best to work through the discomfort, he visibly favored the injury and lost by fall to No. 1 Anthony Valencia of St. John Bosco (freshman) at the 5:43 mark of the third period. However, he is now a two-time state medalist, following up an eighth place in 2011 with his silver Saturday.
“That’s Paul, he’s game,” Varela said.
Three other Mustangs also wrestled at state. Freshman Jesse Vasquez (106), sophomore Victor Olmos (120) and senior Jose Lara (285) were eliminated from the tournament on Day 1. Vasquez went 0-2 in his state debut. Lara looked in top form in a Round 2 fall victory, but dropped his next to bouts. And Olmos, who improved upon a 0-2 showing in 2011, went 2-2.
Christopher High’s Jimmie Lopez (106) was impressive in his first state bout, shaking off an early 4-0 deficit and building a 10-4 lead before pinning Meng Xiong (Merced) at the 5:06 mark of the third period. He then lost his next two matches.
“It’s my first time here. I’m not too bummed out,” Lopez said. “It’s a good experience. I mean it’s state – it’s going to be a tough tournament.”
NOTES: Top-5 final team scores: Clovis – 256.5, Bakersfield 129.5, Poway 113, De La Salle 97, Gilroy 94… Total two-day attendance of the 40th annual event: 18, 247… Number of athletes: 560 … Number of schools represented: 263. Champions: 106: Zahid Valencia (St. John Bosco); 113: Isaiah Locsin (Live Oak); 120: Daniel Gaytan (Clovis); 126: Anthony Valencia (St. John Bosco); 132: Nikko Villarreal (Gilroy); 138: Brian Sergi (College Park); 145: Willie Fox (Gilroy); 152: Isaiah Martinez (Lemoore); 160: Joey Davis (Santa Fe); 170: Zach Nevills (Clovis); 182: Nikko Reyes (Clovis West); 195: Robert Marchese (Oak Hills); 220: JT Goodwin (Bear Creek); 285: Johnny Schupp (Vacaville)…Saturday marked the third time GHS has crowned a pair of state champions in the same state meet. In 2008, Hunter Collins and Martin Gonzalez won it all. The following year, Gonzalez repeated and was joined at the top of the podium by Jesse Delgado. Collins, Gonzalez and Delgado are four-time state placers.