Gilroy High wrestling near perfect

Gilroy High junior Chase Saldate is 35-1 entering the CCS Championships. Photo by Robert Eliason.

There is no such thing as perfection in wrestling, but the great ones strive for it everyday. Last Saturday in the Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division Championships, host Gilroy High came as close to perfection as one will ever see. The Mustangs won 12 of the 14 weight classes, and if not for an injury to John Fox in the 145-pound weight class, they could’ve won every division except at 113 pounds. 

“There is no perfection in wrestling, but you try to find it or get as close to it as you can, and I thought our boys did that,” Gilroy coach Daniel Cormier said. “Every guy that stepped on the mat won every single time they competed, and that’s very important. I’m proud of them;  I thought they did well. I thought the kids take a lot of pride in wrestling for Gilroy and it’s showing.”

Gilroy’s roster of league champions included Keelan Echauri at 106 pounds, Donte Lopez (120), Victor Jacinto (126), Noah Castro (132), Chase Saldate (138), Daniel Vizcarra (152), Nathan Villarreal (160), Joe Barnes (170), Dallas Gutierrez (182), Ryan Reyes (195), Dezi Johnsen (220) and Nick Villarreal at heavyweight. 

In terms of dominance, Nick Villarreal had four pins for a total mat time of 2 minutes, 50 seconds; Gutierrez finished with four pins in 2:53; Barnes totaled four pins in 4:04 and Saldate had three pins for a total mat time of 2:13. Three freshmen—Echauri, Lopez and Johnsen—prove the Mustangs’ dominance won’t be stopping any time soon. 

“We had three kids who were freshmen who were champions, and that’s exciting,” Cormier said.

In the 220-pound title match, Johnson was clearly smaller than his opponent; however, Johnsen utilized his agility, quickness and wrestling smarts to win the contest by decision, 11-7.

“Dezi is a stud man,” Cormier said. “He’s a big, strong kid, and he’s not even as heavy as guys he’s wrestling. But his athletic ability and desire and willingness to compete is carrying him to victories over kids that are much older, much more mature and much more experienced than him, so it’s very encouraging.”

When it comes to pure excellence, Saldate is at the top of the list. The Michigan State-commit has the best record on the team, at 35-1. Saldate has had a fabulous season, with the highlight coming when he won the prestigious Doc Buchanan Invitational, something that was last accomplished by former Mustangs standout Nic Aguilar. Saldate said he’s at the top of his game right now, which could result in him running roughshod in the upcoming Central Coast Section Championships. 

“I feel very confident going into CCS,” said Saldate, who is ranked No. 2 in the state in his weight class. “My mindset into CCS is to dominate everything. I’m expecting all pins for sure, and I think I’m at the peak right now of what I’m going to be all year.”

Saldate possesses agility, a strong top game and excels on his feet. When Saldate goes for a shot, he usually takes his opponent down. He’s been schooled in the fundamentals and was already a standout before Cormier and the new coaching staff came on board. However, Saldate said the new Gilroy coaches have added another dimension to his vast skill set. 

“Deron (Winn) and D.C. help you work on the little things and the mindset, so I really like it,” Saldate said. “I think it’s next level stuff. … I feel I was already at this point where I was already a good state wrestler, but they were the ones that took me up to one of the top kids in the country because right now I’m No. 6 in the country in my weight class.”

In practice, Saldate drills with Jacinto and Fox, as Jacinto provides a faster, lighter partner, while Fox is more powerful as the heavier wrestler. Saldate finished fourth at state last season, chalking up part of the result to getting caught up in the event itself. 

“I lost to a kid who I beat earlier in the year and I think it’s because at state everything around you—the atmosphere—is a lot different,” he said. “And I kind of let myself get lost in that, and I think that is what messed me up. So this year I’ll treat it as a small tournament like this and I think I’ll do a lot better. … Going into state I expect all pins all the way into the semis, and once I’m in the semis I really want to get a major (decision/result) because I don’t see besides me and the No. 1 kid Jessie Vasquez anyone even close to us. I’ve already wrestled the Nos. 4 and 5 kids and destroyed them, so I think once I get to the finals is when I’ll have a tough match, and even then I expect to put a lot of points on the board.”

Saldate could be on a collision course with Vasquez, a junior who is aiming to become a three-time state champion. In the 2017 State Championships, Vasquez defeated Nic Aguilar for the 113-pound title. Last season, Vasquez vanquished Alex Felix for the 132-pound championship. Saldate would love nothing more than to put an end to Vasquez’s streak. 

“I don’t want him to keep beating Gilroy kids in the finals,” Saldate said. “I wrestled Jesse in the eighth grade, and he beat me in overtime. I want that match.”

Cormier repeated the word proud four times in a brief conversation with a reporter after the PCAL Championships, noting how his athletes wrestled smart and displayed solid fundamentals. They also won decisively, noteworthy when everyone expected that result. 

“I always tell these boys sometimes what’s expected is the hardest thing to do,” Cormier said. “People expect them to wrestle well and sometimes that’s tougher than being the underdog. These guys took on that expectation and they kind of ran right through it.”

Cormier focuses on the process of everyday improvement rather than the bottom line, knowing the wins will come if the focus on all of the little things take precedence. That’s why even after winning their own Mid-Cals Tournament last month, there was a palpable sense that the team had not wrestled to its ability. 

“After Mid-Cals we were all disappointed as we left because we didn’t wrestle well,” Cormier said. “It’s not about wins or losses—it ‘s about competing the way we know the guys are able to compete and we didn’t do it at Mid-Cals. I feel like they wrestled to their potential (in the league finals). Again, it’s not about counting the wins and losses—it’s about getting the right things done in the right position. They wrestled well, they wrestled every position, every situation and it showed. … Right now we’re in the final phase of peaking and I think it’s going to show at the state tournament.”