Nic Aguilar jumped into his father’s arms in a jubilant celebration, a long embrace that was overflowing with emotion.
“I love you,” Damien Aguilar said to Nic after watching his son win the 120-pound title match in the CIF State Wresting Championships last Saturday at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. It was an indelible moment that will forever be seared into both of their minds.
“That is an opportunity and memory we got to share together that many people don’t get to experience,” Nic said. “He witnessed his son win a state title in front of an entire arena. It was indescribable.”
So was Gilroy High’s performance. It’s official. With a second-place finish in the CIF State Wrestling Championships, the 2017-2018 Gilroy team can lay claim to being the greatest squad in the program’s illustrious and rich history. The Mustangs totaled 180 points—far and away the best in program history and the 11th highest point total by any team in state history—to finish second behind Buchanan of Clovis, which scored 219 points.
Gilroy’s 2008 team also finished second with 113 points. Aguilar wasn’t the only wrestler who won an individual state championship. Fellow senior Tony Andrade immortalized his name in the record books by capturing the 195-pound title. Gilroy’s placers included freshman Jayden Gomez, who took fifth place at 106 pounds; Chase Saldate, who took fourth at 126; Alex Felix, who was the runner-up at 132; Joe Barnes, who finished eighth at 160; and Nick Villarreal, who placed sixth at 285.
Aguilar and Andrade both were runner-ups last season; however, this year they were not going to be denied.
“I was a man on a mission,” said Aguilar, who defeated Henry Porter of Oakdale 6-1 in the title match. “When I got to the finals, I was zoned in, dialed in, tunnel vision setting in. I had some unfinished business.”
And boy, did Aguilar take care of business. He went 6-0, winning his first match via pinfall before racking up five straight wins by decision: 13-0, 9-2, 8-0, 13-1 in the semifinals and the aforementioned 6-1 score in the finals. How dominant was Aguilar? He surrendered only four measly points in six matches, all of which were a result of Aguilar letting his opponent up from the starting bottom position.
That means Aguilar was never taken down, a remarkable feat that speaks to his offensive and defensive arsenal.
“My strength is my offense because I keep my hands and feet moving and create angles and positions to score points,” he said. “When my offense is going, they’re on the defense. I’m not giving them a chance to get on the offense because I’m constantly pushing the pace.”
During the entire tournament, Aguilar rarely looked at the scoreboard, knowing he was in control. He simply focused on scoring points, sticking with his routine and finishing strong every match. This was Aguilar’s fourth trip to the state tournament, and the previous experiences steeled him for a decisive breakthrough.
“In my freshman and sophomore years, when I got up on the stage it was kind of a shock,” he said. “This time knowing I had been there before, I felt comfortable in the environment and knew I had to get the job done.”
Greg Varela has been the Gilroy coach since 2009, and he is not only a coach but also a second father to many of the wrestlers, having known them since they were adolescents. Whenever Varela talks about his wrestlers, he sounds like a proud father.
“Nic Aguilar used to get bullied as a kid because he was so small,” Varela said in a text message to the Dispatch. “So he took up wrestling and built up his confidence. He had two heartbreaking losses in the finals the last two years to freshman phenoms and here he was in the finals again against another freshman phenom. He got over the hump and won a state title.”
As the referee raised Aguilar’s arm in victory, a torrent of emotions flowed through him.
“Just to accomplish something I set out since I was a little kid felt pretty good,” he said. “This was the way I wanted to end my Gilroy career—waving goodbye to all of the Gilroy blue standing up in the crowd. We had one of the biggest cheering sections in the arena. They were supporting us like crazy, and it was awesome.”
Like Aguilar, Andrade strung together one of the most dominant performances at state. He won his first four matches by pinfall—in 1:07, 13 seconds, 1:39 and 1:32—before defeating Ryan Reyes of Clovis West 7-2 in the semifinals and edging Oakdale’s Colbey Harlan 3-1 in the title match. In a grueling sport like wrestling, adversity is inevitable. Andrade missed an entire season due to a football injury, and yet he still persevered to become a state champion.
Midway through the season, Andrade told the Dispatch he was confident he would win the state title. Knowing he was starting wrestling season late due to playing a starring role on the football team’s march to its first-ever CCS championship, Andrade felt it was only a matter of time before he got into supreme wrestling shape.
Then he backed up his talk by creaming the competition at state. Varela pumped his fist and yelled when Andrade clinched the title. He knows better than anyone how much Andrade has overcome to be a champion.
“Tony has had two major knee surgeries and last year I found him hiding on campus during practice,” Varela said. “He wanted to quit. He was crying and scared of never being as good as he could’ve been. He was scared of getting hurt again. He was scared of failing. He felt all the expectations and hype was too much for him to live up to and he wanted out. We rallied as coaches to pull him together. Assistant coach Matt Corona has worked with him 1 on 1 for two years even moving in with him to help him with his schoolwork. Slowly we rebuilt this kid and today he is a state champ.”
Even though the Mustangs are feared throughout Northern California, when they get to the State Championships, they take on an underdog mentality. It’s not something they do artificially to pump themselves up. Aguilar, Felix and Varela emphasized how the top high school wrestling publications all had Gilroy finishing outside the top three in the team standings. They also noted how the other state powers had much larger teams.
“Buchanan, Selma and Poway had a bunch of people, and if you looked at our squad, we probably had half the number of guys Buchanan had,” Felix said.
“Everyone counted us out, and for us to get in the top two and stand in the face of adversity is a great feeling,” Aguilar said.
““We weren’t even mentioned on the Flowrestling Preview of the state meet,” Varela said. “We had national power Buchanan on the ropes and we beat Poway and Selma, who were nationally ranked ahead of us.”
Felix had a magnificent state run that was only marred at the end by a recurring knee injury. He won his first five matches to reach the 132-pound title match, where he lost to Santiago’s Jesse Vasquez 10-0. Unfortunately for Felix, he said he heard his right knee pop twice at the beginning of the championship match.
“I couldn’t do much,” he said. “(Vasquez) was good no doubt, but I felt confident I would beat him heading into the match.”
Despite the injury, Felix had plenty to be proud of, improving upon his pair of third-place finishes and a fourth at state over the last three years.
“I finally got that monkey off my back and made it to the finals,” he said. “Just in general, winning in the semis was big for me. In the finals, I knew I had to finish that match. No matter what, I was going to finish.”
Felix said one of the keys to the Gilroy wrestling dynasty is the family aspect of the program.
“I wouldn’t trade my teammates for the world,” he said. “They’re my brothers and we’ve grown so close together because some of us have known each other since we were 4 years old. So we are truly a homegrown team.”
Varela expressed pride in all of his wrestlers, noting Saldate’s improved mental toughness.
“(Chase) let his nerves get the best of him last year at CCS and state,” Varela said. “This year he overcame his nerves and anxiety. That same kid faced his demons and took fourth in the state.”
Every Gilroy wrestler that made it to state has literally put in thousands of hours over the course of their career. They usually start around 5 or 6 with the renowned Gilroy Hawks club program, setting themselves up to be future CCS and state champions.
“It isn’t a season of hard work,” Varela said, “it has been a lifetime commitment.”