Ten straight Central Coast Section titles have given Gilroy High’s wrestling program a marquee name, but the dynasty isn’t being built under the glitz of bright lights.
The Mustangs were tucked away in the tiny wrestling room of South Valley Middle School on a rainy November afternoon, quietly grinding through practice before the curtain is lifted on a season full of promise. The face of the program felt right at home.
“Gilroy’s really known for wrestling, so it’s a big deal that we keep the tradition alive,” Mustangs junior Nikko Villarreal said.
Villarreal will wrestle at 145 pounds this season after winning the 132-pound state title as a sophomore. It’s not often that a returning state champion has a chip on their shoulder, but Villarreal feels he has something to prove after pulling off a historic upset at the state meet in Bakersfield last season.
Villarreal stunned Selma High’s Alex Cisneros in the 132-pound state final, winning a 5-3 decision to prevent Cisneros from winning four state titles. The match had a frantic finish, with Villarreal scoring five points in the final 10 seconds of the third period.
Villarreal threw the three-time defending state champion to his back for two points, then used a three-point near fall to secure victory and send the Rabobank Arena crowd into a frenzy seldom heard at high school sporting events.
A video of the match has been viewed more than 21,000 times on YouTube, with commenters debating whether Villarreal’s victory was a fluke and whether the late throw was a lucky move.
“I’m ready to prove people wrong,” Villarreal said. “Last year I won my state title with 10 seconds left and people were calling that luck, so I really want to prove people wrong this year and blow them out of the water.”
Cisneros won two decisions over Villarreal during the regular season last year, but the scores were only 4-3 in double overtime and 1-0. Gilroy coach Greg Varela said the background noise surrounding Villarreal’s title has fueled the state champion.
“Absolutely, he’s had a bit of a chip on his shoulder this whole offseason, and definitely the spring and fall getting ready,” Varela said. “You read any national forum after the match, and it was all, ‘He got lucky with the throw.’
“But like (golfer) Arnold Palmer said, ‘The more I practice, it seems the luckier I get.’ And (Villarreal’s) take was, ‘I didn’t just wake up today and become a state champ. I’ve been training year-round for years for this moment.’ And he caught him fair and square.”
With Cisneros graduated and Villarreal now at 145 pounds, the Gilroy junior has been training for new challenges. One source of inspiration was watching U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs win a gold medal in the London Olympics.
“I’m really an offensive guy. I like to shoot high to open up the score in my matches,” Villarreal said. “Bottom (position) is a huge thing I’ve been working on. I’ve been working on getting out of more of those, scoring more points to get on my feet. We’re working on top right now. I’m just trying to be a well-rounded wrestler.”
Varela said Villarreal has an uncommon passion toward the sport.
“I think what sets him apart is that he’s always on the mat. He’s a mat rat,” Varela said. “He’s here 12 months a year.”
Villarreal isn’t the only big name on Gilroy’s roster.
The Mustangs also will lean heavily on junior Paul Fox, who was the state runner-up last season at 126 pounds and will wrestle this year at 132.
Like Villarreal, Fox has worked on expanding his offensive arsenal since last season.
“I’m really offensive, so I don’t sit back and wait,” Fox said. “I go, go, go. We’re working on top a lot. I’ve got to get better on that.”
Gilroy opens the season at the Chukchansi Invitational at Madera South High on Friday and Saturday. The team’s first dual meet is against visiting Alisal at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
The California Wrestler has seven Gilroy wrestlers ranked in the top 32 in the state in respective weight classes: Villarreal (No. 1 at 145), Fox (No. 3 at 132), junior Victor Olmos (No. 7 at 126), sophomore Jesse Vasquez (No. 18 at 113), junior Lupe Jimenez (No. 30 at 152), junior Julian Carbajal (No. 31 at 182) and sophomore Mark Penyacsek (No. 32 at 170).
“We’re young but we’re an experienced team, so I’m excited,” Varela said. “I don’t think there’s going to be too much learning curve there.”
Varela said wrestlers also receive instruction from Gilroy principal Marco Sanchez, who was an All-American wrestler at Arizona State and wrestled for Puerto Rico in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“It’s not just one coach, it’s a bunch of people,” Fox said. “The principal, he helps us a bunch, and it’s nice to have support.”
The area is rich in talent, as Live Oak junior Isaiah Locsin is ranked No. 1 in the state at 120. Locsin, who won a state title at 113 last season, wrestled with the Gilroy Hawks on the youth circuit.
The Mustangs enter the season ranked No. 6 in the state team rankings, and another CCS title seems likely. But Varela said he’s proud of his team regardless of whether another banner is raised in Bob Hagen Gym.
“Almost 75 percent of the team has straight ‘A’ (grades) right now. They respond to everything I do,” Varela said. “That’s why when it comes to the CCS titles, on the outside, it’s like, ‘Would you guys be devastated if you lose?’ No way. Anything that happens, I’ll be proud of them.”