As a kid, Ryan Reyes often spent the first weekend in March watching the CIF State Wrestling Championships at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. The Gilroy High senior was in attendance when his older brother, Nikko, won the second of his two titles in 2012. So it wasn’t a surprise then when Ryan was overwhelmed with emotion after he won a state championship in the 195-pound division last Saturday, accomplishing a goal he set out years ago.
“It was sort of surreal when it was my time to go (for my match to start),” he said. “I got pretty emotional because it’s been a long process for me to get to this point. It’s been crazy with a lot of ups and downs, and when it was over, I thought it was the coolest thing especially because I saw my brother win this tournament twice. I’ve watched this tournament since I was little, with the light on the mat and the wrestlers (and everywhere else pitch black).”
What made Reyes’ victory all the more rewarding was the fact he finished in third place in each of the previous two years. The third-place match is tough for wrestlers mentally since they were one step away from competing in the finals. So close yet so far.
“I learned the most the last two years after getting everything taken away,” he said. “It was the biggest dream I had as a little kid, and when you’re going through the whole thing and to get that taken away in the semifinals, it’s heartbreaking and it takes a real warrior to come back. It’s a real blow and everything can break down mentally, but you have to regain and recoup, and I’ve done that twice to win third place. But it was time to collect and know everything I’ve done in the past was going to pay off. I think in the semifinal match I was the most hyped up I’ve ever been. I wanted that match so badly and to break the curse of losing in the semis. It felt good.”
Reyes ran roughshod over the competition, recording four pins, a technical fall victory and a 4-2 decision over Jadon Martin of Buchanan in the title match.
“I didn’t feel in danger in any match,” he said. “I felt completely in control.”
In the championship match, Reyes went up 2-0 late in the first period after unleashing a 2-on-1 key lock throw—“That is sort of my bread and butter,” he said—and immediately followed that into a two-point nearfall for a 4-0 lead. Martin’s only points came on a pair of escapes in the first and second periods, respectively, and Reyes said he kept on going for shots in the third period to try to up his lead. Reyes had the mindset to stay aggressive and not stand on the lead.
“Everything going through my mind at that point was preached to me two weeks before the state tournament, and that was don’t hang on a lead, that we want to open up the gap,” he said. “I’m telling myself in this match, ‘Don’t hang on the lead, don’t hang on lead.’ I took three deep shots, but didn’t finish the shots (to score points). I really wanted to get one more finish before the match ended. … My best defense is my offense, and I put myself in the right position to win.”
Did he ever. Reyes, who has been ranked No. 1 in the state at 195 pounds for virtually the entire season, rewarded himself for a long and grueling season by finishing a 24-ounce Porterhouse steak and potatoes from Harris Ranch on the drive back home a day later. For good measure, Reyes ate two cookies and some Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
“I went absolutely crazy,” he said. “I finished it.”
Just like he did on the mat. As the referee raised Reyes’ arm in victory, he looked up to the Gilroy cheering section and saw his parents, Laz and Leticia, before climbing over a small gate and going up rows of seats to hug his parents in one of the more meaningful embraces they’ll ever have.
“I’m pretty sure my mom was crying and my dad got pretty emotional, too,” Reyes said. “I got emotional just hugging my coaches and parents because it was sort of like, ‘We finally got it done, we finally did it.’ When the match was over, it didn’t really hit me. And the next day, it still didn’t really hit me. Now it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s the real deal and it really happened.’”
For the second straight year, Gilroy finished as the runner-up in the team standings, totaling 182 points to Buchanan’s 235. Chase Saldate and Nick Villarreal took second in their respective weight classes, at 138 pounds and 285 pounds. Saldate lost to three-time state champion Jesse Vasquez of Excelsior Charter, 6-3, while Villarreal lost 3-2 to Michael Jeffus of Turlock.
Sophomore Victor Jacinto finished fourth at 126 pounds, John Fox took sixth at 145, Dan Vizcarra took sixth at 152, and Nathan Villarreal placed seventh at 160. Saldate had a strong run, rolling through the competition before matching up with a wrestler who will aim for a fourth state title next year. Saldate, a Michigan State commit, will no doubt use the match as a learning experience and come back stronger than ever.
Villarreal will do the same. The state’s top-ranked heavyweight for virtually the entire season, Villarreal lost a battle of attrition by the closest of margins. Neither fighter scored in the first round as they jostled for position with a lot of handfighting, trying to figure each other out. Villarreal went up 1-0 on an escape in the second period, but Jeffus answered with a two-point takedown midway through the period.
Jeffus scored on an escape early in the third to go up 3-1 before Villarreal received a point as Jeffus was called for stalling. Villarreal tried desperately for a takedown and secure a victory in the waning moments of the match, but it wasn’t meant to be. Villarreal said he was hampered by a left foot injury he suffered in the middle of the second period, which made the loss all the more painful. However, the junior still had plenty to be thankful for and proud of the tremendous season he produced.
“My coaches told me good job and that I needed to work on certain things,” Villarreal said. “And they were glad it (the injury) happened in this match and not anytime before. At first after the loss I was pretty upset. It was a little heartbreaking. But once I realized during the match that I had probably broken or fractured my foot and got back on my feet to finish the match and almost winning the match, it felt like a victory to me.”
Villarreal will come back next season with the proverbial chip on his shoulder, knowing how close he was to winning a state championship. He has improved every season and was a tour de force this season, utilizing tremendous agility and cardio to wear down the competition. Villarreal said the experience of reaching a state championship match will serve him well going forward.
“It’s nice to have the experience so I’ll know what to prepare for and be ready for it,” he said. “When they introduced each wrestler and show a picture of you on the screen up top, honestly, it was pretty nerve-wracking because I had never been under the spotlight before with that many people watching. It’s something to learn from.”