Gilroy wins unprecedented 17th straight title

Dan Vizcarra wins the 152-pound title in the CCS Championships. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The Gilroy High wrestling dynasty shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. In fact, it seems like the Mustangs are inching up to a higher level. A year after a record-breaking performance in the Central Coast Section Championships, the Mustangs found a way to add further accolades to one of the section’s all-time great runs covering all sports. 

Gilroy had a record-breaking 12 finalists—including nine individual champions—while amassing a meet record 377 points Saturday at Independence High to win an unprecedented 17th consecutive section title. A year ago, Gilroy won 10 of the 14 weight divisions with a then-record 373.5 points. This season, the Mustangs had one less individual winner but two more finalists and finished with a record 47 pins. The fleet of Gilroy title winners included Victor Jacinto at 126 pounds, Noah Castro at 132, Chase Saldate at 138, John Fox at 145, Daniel Vizcarra at 152, Nathan Villarreal at 160, Joe Barnes at 170, Ryan Reyes at 195, and Nick Villarreal at heavyweight. Gilroy also had an individual champion on the girls side, as Kelly Nebesnick won the crown at 150 pounds. The aforementioned group—along with runner-ups Donte Lopez, Dallas Gutierrez, Dezi Johnsen and Aphrodite Ayala and fourth-place finisher Divina Perez—advance to the two-day state tournament beginning on Friday at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. 

“We all had a goal of breaking previous records and setting new ones to give a good example for kids looking up at us and who will be the next generation of Gilroy wrestlers,” said Joe Barnes, who validated himself as one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the program’s illustrious history by winning a fourth CCS title. “Basically, we were just doing what we were taught and been doing our whole lives.”

Barnes, who won the 170-pound title, has plenty to be proud of considering he started the season slow due to injuries he incurred from football season. However, once Barnes’ body started to recover, he was able to go full bore into the team’s intense workouts and get in the superior wrestling shape the Gilroy wrestlers are known for. Barnes never ran into any trouble in the tournament, amassing five pins over five matches, putting an exclamation point on a fourth section championship. 

“It was huge, a big moment for me,” he said. “I’ve come a long way in this journey, and I’m just glad I was able to accomplish my goals. It felt like a dream come true. As a kid I looked up to older kids who were winning the finals and wanted to be like that and follow in their footsteps.”

Nathan Villarreal followed in some footsteps as well, while also making a trail of his own. His older brother, Nico, was also a four-time CCS champ and is now a senior wrestling at Arizona State. Nathan captured his second consecutive CCS title in dominating fashion, winning all five of his matches via pinfall. 

“I was really excited because I didn’t think I would be able to pin all of them,” said Villarreal, who utilized his superior quickness, agility and technique to bury his opponents. “I felt like our coaches put us in the right mindset to do big things. They were motivating us every single day and training us like professional athletes, which really took us to the next level.”

Villarreal has been wrestling since he was 3 years old, and chalked up his development to Nico. The two grappled plenty of times growing up, with Nathan admitting the two had some rough fights along the way. However, the two are close and Nathan said he would’ve never gotten to this point had it not been for Nico’s influence. 

“He’s brought me to where I am, forced me to do things I didn’t want to do and is the reason why I’m wrestling,” Nathan said. 

Vizcarra was involved in the match of the night, a thrilling contest that had the crowd out of their seats near the end. Trailing 7-1 to Evergreen Valley’s Marcos Jimenez, the Gilroy High senior unleashed a furious comeback to pull out a 10-9 win. It was one of the largest comebacks in CCS Championship history in recent memory, and what made the feat even more impressive was the fact Vizcarra nearly got pinned in the opening 15 seconds of the match. 

Vizcarra got caught and was squarely on his back, trying desperately to get one of his shoulders off the mat. In that moment, Vizcarra used all of his experience to escape the proverbial jaws of defeat and eventually prevail. In a nail-biting, seesaw match, Vizcarra nearly produced a pin later in the match and scored points to get within striking distance. With time bleeding away, Vizcarra unleashed a huge series of moves late in the third period, including a duck under takedown that gave him a 10-9 lead in the waning seconds. 

Jimenez then looked to pull off an escape at the buzzer, which would’ve forced overtime. However, the two referees conversed for a couple of minutes and decided Jimenez either did not get the escape or get it off in time, finalizing the outcome. In that moment, Vizcarra let all of his emotions out, tugging on his jersey, pointing to the crowd and strutting around the mat befitting of a champion. 

“(When I was down 7-1) I was just thinking to myself to let this first period go and battle away,” he said. “I had to think about all of the training I had ever done up to this point and to dig down in a deeper place and let it go. I hit him with something I’ve been working on and was trying to set up the whole match. The worst-case scenario (at the end) was it would’ve been an escape and we would’ve went to overtime. But at that point I was ready to take the match. The whole match I still felt like I was going to win.”

Vizcarra also displayed tremendous mental toughness and poise a week earlier when he defeated Salinas’ Alfredo Mendoza for the Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division title. The match could’ve gone either way, and yet Vizcarra came through in a white-knuckle affair, a testament to his ability to grind when things get tough. That match served Vizcarra well against the talented Jimenez.

“At first I panicked a little bit (down 7-1),” Vizcarra said. “Then I looked at my corner and heard the coaches say, ‘Just relax.’ And that’s when I realized it was time to go, dig deep and get this match. I’ve been reading a lot lately on how the body is just as strong as the mind, but you have to push. It’s about callusing your mind to get better and knowing when it hurts I have a reason why I’m here, and that’s to win a state title. In the tight moments in the big matches, I can count on my mind to be right there with me.”

Jacinto also proved to be mentally tough, grinding away for a tough 3-0 win over Palo Alto’s Andrew Wang. Neither wrestler could do much to score points, but Jacinto scored all of the points he would need when he recorded a takedown after holding one of Wang’s legs for a good 25 seconds before he was finally able to bring Wang down to the mat. 

“I feel excited and tired,” said Jacinto, a sophomore standout. “He kind of knew what I was going to do from the top, so I really couldn’t do anything (to score points). I held him down and kept him down the whole match.”

Castro, a senior, also had a dominating run, recording three pins, a technical fall victory and a 6-0 decision in the semifinals. Saldate and Reyes crushed their respective competition, with Saldate recording pins at the 46-second mark, 2:55, 1:18, 2:00 and 1:37, and Reyes producing pins at 36 seconds, 1:22, 1:14, 3:26 and 1:50. Fox, as he typically does, wins the battle of attrition in the later rounds. 

Saturday was no different, as he recorded a 5-1 decision in the semifinals and 8-1 points victory in the title match. Nick Villarreal, the state’s top-ranked heavyweight, finished with three pins, a major decision and a 5-1 win in the final. Villarreal’s cardio is top-notch and his agility right up there with the top heavyweights in the state. 

On a night filled with plenty of emotion, perhaps no one showed more of it than Nebesnick, the Gilroy High senior who in the winter juggles wrestling and soccer. Even though soccer is her top sport, Nebesnick can’t imagine her life being complete without wrestling. Nebesnick started the sport in middle school but didn’t start wrestling at Gilroy until her sophomore season. 

Nebesnick took second at CCS last year at 143 pounds before winning it all this season in her final go-around. 

“I was so happy but also sad realizing it was my last CCS match,” she said. “I knew I was going to miss the feeling of competing at CCS.”

Nebesnick credited the Gilroy coaches for improving her skill set, as they helped her become more aggressive with her shots and her bottom game. 

“The coaches definitely helped me to improve wrestling on the offensive,” she said. “I don’t take many shots so they worked with me on that and also on my bottom (game). They always pushed me in practice to help me wrestle my best in matches.”

Nebesnick won three of her four matches via pinfall, but did have a tough test in the third round, where she edged Shaylene Lopez, 7-5. The CCS runner-up a year ago at 143 pounds, Nebesnick found ultimate redemption. 

“I remember when I lost to the girl in the finals last year and remember her telling the interviewer that it was her year because it was her senior year,” Nebesnick said. “I didn’t understand what she said last year, but this year I did and I felt that.”

Johnsen was the most impressive freshman in the CCS, as he reached the 220-pound final—recording four pins along the way—before getting throttled by Bellarmine’s Victor Jaquez, at the 1:31 mark. However, Johnsen was clearly giving away 10 to 20 pounds to Jaquez, an advantage that was too much to overcome, even for an athlete of Johnsen’s caliber. Make no mistake: Johnsen will be a future CCS champion, helping to continue the Gilroy juggernaut.