Just call him The Comeback Kid. After winning the 170-pound title in the Central Coast Section Championships last Saturday at Independence High, Chad Sakamoto was greeted by a flood of teammates, coaches, family members and friends as he came off the mat. The comeback was complete. Sakamoto is just one of the many inspirational athletes who make up the Gilroy High wrestling program, which has never been better when you take into account the combined success of the boys and girls programs.
Emmily Patneaud has a nice comeback story of her own, as she missed all of last season due to a torn ACL. Patneaud won North Coast Section titles as a freshman and sophomore. Two years ago, she also won the state title at 137 pounds. This season, she won a CCS title in the 143-pound division. Patneaud was involved in one of the most suspenseful matches of the tournament in the final against Fremont of Sunnyvale’s Annie Hua. The Gilroy High senior had beaten Hua 7-0 earlier in the season, but it was apparent early on the rematch was going to be a lot closer.
Patneaud eventually prevailed in overtime, scoring a takedown 25 seconds into the extra session to earn the victory, 3-1. It was a thrilling end to a match filled with drama, even though neither wrestler could impose their will on the other.
“I felt good going into overtime,” Patneaud said. “I felt like once I could get in position, I would be able to score. When the match is that close, it’s easy to get nervous. But once you’re in it, you forget all that. I’m thankful I was able to come back. I had to improve a lot this season since I was out last year, and I know I can be better than I was.”
The boys team won an unprecedented 18th consecutive championship in dominant fashion, totaling 328 points to easily outdistance second-place Evergreen Valley’s 195.5 points. The girls program came within a whisker of winning a CCS title, finishing with 160.5 points to Menlo-Atherton’s 162. In a competition that involves literally close to 1,000 matches in all, the final result equated to wrestling’s version of a photo finish. Gilroy didn’t become the first team in CCS history to win both the boys and girls title in the same season; however, both programs are flying high and show no signs of slowing down any time soon.
The top three placers from the boys side and the top four placers from the girls side advance to the CIF State Championships, which begin on Thursday at Mechanics Bank Arena (formerly Rabobank) in Bakersfield. The list from Gilroy High is a long one, and from the girls team includes Valerie Glenn (third place at 106 pounds), Aphrodite Ayala (champion at 111), Milca Elvira-Chacon (fourth at 116), Jocelyn Fierro (second at 126), and Patneaud (champion at 143).
The members of the boys team who qualified for state include Scotty Moore (champion at 106), Zach Fierro (second at 113), Jayden Gomez (second at 126), Nathan Aguilar (third at 132), Henry Porter (champion at 138), Donte Lopez (second at 145), Chase Saldate (champion at 152), Doug Porter (third at 160), Sakamoto (champion at 170), Josh Cortez (champion at 220), and Nicholas Villarreal (champion at heavyweight).
Sakamoto grew up wrestling with Saldate and Villarreal with the Gilroy Hawks club program and arguably was the most accomplished out of the group when they were 13 years old. However, Sakamoto stopped wrestling after his eighth grade year and didn’t return until this season. Sakamoto wasn’t planning on wrestling his senior year either until he got a call from Mustangs coach Daniel Cormier.
“D.C. said it was time for me to get to college (and wrestle), so I ended up coming back to the room and now we’re here,” said Sakamoto, who has made a verbal commitment to westle at the University of Kansas. “This was just like old times when I was wrestling back in the eighth grade. To be able to come back and have my family be able to watch me again now as a CCS champ is unbelievable. It’s amazing just to be able to come back and win a CCS title for my dad—it’s everything I could wish for.”
The best part of Sakamoto’s comeback story? He wasn’t the favorite to win the title, especially once he got to the final against Bellarmine’s Zane Hake, who had already beaten Sakamoto twice in as many matchups this season. But Saldate said something has clicked with his good friend the last couple of weeks, and that something has been superior conditioning.
“Chad would always gas out if he was in a match late in the third period,” said Saldate, a three-time CCS champion. “Not this time.”
Sakamoto said he decided to stop wrestling after his eighth grade year because he got burnt out in the sport, which coincided with his dad, Mike, being involved in a serious accident. Mike has since recovered from the accident and was up in the stands cheering for Chad, who beat Hake 14-9 and never trailed in the match. Hake had won the previous two matches this season, the first by pinfall late in the third period and the second by a 15-9 decision. Sakamoto wasn’t about to be denied a third time.
Every time Hake had a chance to take the lead, Sakamoto responded beautifully. With the score at 2-2 in the second period, Hake had Sakamoto and went for a sweep single leg takedown only to see Sakamoto immediately score on a reversal and then put Hake on his back for a three-point near fall. Hake rallied to eventually tie things at 7-7, but Sakamoto hit an escape, a takedown and a pair of two-point nearfalls to take a commanding 14-7 lead.
“I’ve been working on this tilt where I grab the leg and go backwards, but in the third period instead of going backwards, I went forward,” said Sakamoto, who was motivated by the fact he was seeded No. 4 in his weight class. “I came back here to get my No. 1 spot; I didn’t like I was seeded fourth.”
Saldate and his teammates were proud of Sakamoto for coming on strong late in the season after a rough start to the 2019-2020 campaign.
“Chad my boy came through, and it was huge,” Saldate said. “Every match he lost up to the first three quarters of the season was by pin. But the past two weeks it just clicked for him. He’s been wrestling Doug Porter, and Doug was pushing Chad with Chad kind of not realizing that he’s going to get the gas tank up. He got it up and won. Every time he faced that Bellarmine guy he was gassing out. Every time it was conditionig. Chad was very known for his performance just dropping in the third period—you could just tell he would get gassed. So his conditioning got up, he pushed hard for us and for the last month he’s got it done. He came through big time.”
Cormier hugged Sakamoto afterward and marveled at the fact that Sakamoto had taken four years off only to return for his senior year and win a CCS championship. Speaking of marvel, that would be one way to describe Saldate, who had one of the most dominating run in the tourney with five pins, four of which went under a minute. The Michigan State-signee overwhelmed the 152-pound field as expected.
Lightning quick, agile and strong, Saldate overhwhelmed his opponents in devastating fashion. Even though Saldate said all of his section titles were sweet, the third one was probably the sweetest. That’s because UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and some of his friends/training partners were in attendance to watch Saldate and his teammates.
“I think winning this one is the best because to have Khabib and the rest of the Russians come and watch is pretty cool,” Saldate said. “They were a little undercover up in the stands, and to be able to perform in front of them and also having more family here—I had like 15 total members come this time—makes you enjoy it that much more.”
Three days before the start of the championships, Saldate wrestled with Nurmagomedov, something that has happened periodically in the last year.
“I wrestled with him the whole practice, and it’s rough,” Saldate said. “It’s a beating. When you’re down on the floor, you’re thinking, ‘I would never want to fight this guy for real.’ Going from him to anybody else, it’s like, ‘Dude, I’m wrestling kids now.’ It just feels different.”
Saldate feels great entering the CIF State Championships, where he was a runner-up a year ago. He knows he has to tidy up a couple of things in his game, which he fully expects to do.
“I’ll work on my top game a lot because I know on my feet I’m really good,” he said. “But the big thing for me is riding kids out, and that’s why I’ve been practicing on my top game a lot.”
Villarreal became a four-time CCS champion by putting on another clinic in the final. Similar to Saldate, Villarreal was downright dominant, winning his first four matches via pinfall and cruising to a 6-0 win over Fremont’s T.J. Takafua in the final. Villarreal was never seriously threatened against Takafua, who had approximately 50 pounds on the Gilroy High standout. However, Villarreal is used to going up against heavier guys, and he uses his quickness and technique to get takedowns, prevent takedowns and ride his opponents into submission.
Villarreal now joins an exclusive club as a four-time CCS champ from Gilroy High. The tradition-rich Mustangs have had a couple of wrestlers do it before, most recently Joe Barnes last year.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Villarreal said. “Winning CCS four times was a goal of mine even coming in here as a freshman. I’ve been coming to this tournament since I was 12, so it’s been a big part of my life.”
In the championship contest, Villarreal scored on an early takedown before riding Takafua for most of the match.
“It’s definitley more tiring for me to move the big bodies around,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of this team. I don’t think any team will do what Gilroy has done for the last 20 years. It’s such a strong dynasty.”
In winning the 220-pound division in dominant fashion—Cortez produced four pins before recording a 6-1 decision victory in the final—the Gilroy High junior showed why he was the best in his weight class in the CCS this season. Irked by the fact that he received a No. 3 seed, Cortez went out and rolled the competition.
“I felt great,” Cortez said. “Freshman year here I didn’t even place. I worked hard to get back here and win it. I credit the coaches for putting me in a position to win. And I don’t know why I got seeded third. They screwed me with that, so it was nice to prove them wrong.”
Henry Porter showed why he’ll be a strong contender to win the 138-pound title at state. Blending tremendous technical skills with top-tier physical talent, Porter ran roughshod over the competition. After receiving a bye in the opening round, Porter recorded pins at the one minute mark and at 39 seconds before producing two technical fall victories—15-0 in the semifinals and 19-4 in the title match—to cap off an impressive performance. Whereas some top-flight wrestlers are unable to embrace the grind, Porter enjoys the journey. He loves the process and has a pure love for the sport. In the final, Porter put on a clinic, registering five takedowns. For Porter, it’s all about staying in the moment and being mentally tough.
“I want to wrestle my match for the full six minutes,” he said. “Our coaches help us to adjust the small things we need to become a better wrestler.”
Moore echoed similar sentiments, noting the coaches’ sacrifice and hard work to prepare the wrestlers to be at their best come CCS tournament time. Moore recorded five pins in five matches, winning the final at the 3:51 mark. He took control immediately, utilizing a takedown and two-point nearfall to take a 4-0 lead after the first period. Moore hasn’t lost to an opponent within the section this season, and has followed in the footsteps of past Gilroy High freshmen who have won CCS.
“It was a good experience here,” Moore said. “I got a little tired at the end, so I’ve got to get in better shape if I want to do good at state.”
Moore uses his quickness to take opponents down and routinely keep them off-balance. The Gilroy girls have plenty of talent as well, led by Ayala and Patneaud. A year after finishing as a CCS runner-up, Ayala came back to the event stronger and tougher than ever. How else to explain her run through the championships, as she pinned her first three opponents before recording a 7-1 decision win in the semifinals and a 6-2 victory in the championship match.
Like usual, Ayala was methodical all tournament long, picking apart opponents and looking for an opening to score points. She was never in serious danger, though she did get taken down in her semifinal match. However, Ayala’s determination showed as she wrestled smart and never gave her opponents an opening.
“I knew what I had to do in my match (against North Salinas’ Martha Alvarez) in the final,” she said. “I didn’t want to rush anything, and since we both know how the other wrestles, you really can’t change too much or you will get off your game. Winning CCS was a great experience. A lot of these girls are like family to me, so it doesn’t feel right to do a big celebration. I know they support me and I support them 100 percent. She (Alvarez) is such a great girl that she celebrated with me. Now it’s on to state, and I just have to go out there and perform.”