Daniel Zepeda, Elijah Cortez and Isaiah Cortez all started wrestling at age 5. It wasn’t too long before they started dreaming of winning a CIF State Wrestling Championship.
On Feb. 25, reality was better than a dream. The Gilroy High standouts—all sophomores—made history in capturing titles at Mechanics Bank Arena in Bakersfield. Zepeda won the 132-pound weight class, Isaiah the 120-pound division and Elijah was victorious at 126 pounds.
This is the first time in Gilroy’s illustrious history that it has had three title winners. On five previous occasions, the Mustangs had two individual champions. The Cortez twins and Zepeda also led GHS to a third-place team finish with a program record 194 points.
Other State placers included freshman sensation Coby Merrill, who took second at 195 pounds; Maxximus Martinez, who finished third at 152; and Moses Mirabal, who took fifth at 138. The GHS girls finished in fourth place behind a runner-up finish from Valerie Glenn at 137 pounds, a third-place showing from Tamara Grace at 126 and a fifth-place from Kaiulani Garcia in the 150-pound division.
Glenn had a tremendous tournament in her final high school competition, recording three pinfalls and a 5-0 decision win before losing a 10-0 major decision to Bella Vista’s Gianna Dibenedetto in the championship match.
Merrill also had a terrific tournament, as three of his four wins came via narrow decisions, a testament to his ability to stay mentally tough and win close matches. The freshman lost in the final but no doubt will be favored to win State the next three years.
The championship wins for Zepeda and the Cortez brothers were extra rewarding given the twins both placed third at State last year and Zepeda went 2-2 and didn’t place. Zepeda was also coming off a tough 1-0 decision loss to Sobrato’s Aden Valencia the previous week in their Central Coast Section title match.
“I’ve been working on this for so long. Since I was little, I always dreamed of going to State and winning,” Zepeda said. “So when it finally happened, it was just awesome.”
Zepeda had one of the most dominant runs of any State gold medalist, going 6-0 with five pins and a 20-5 technical fall victory in the final. His closest match came in the quarterfinals against Rancho Bernardo’s Brandon Eusebio, as Zepeda actually trailed 4-0 before unleashing a comeback.
Zepeda, a top-10 nationally ranked wrestler, got turned on his back but escaped trouble and recorded a pair of reversals to level the match at 4-4 before utilizing a hard bar and half to get Eusebio on his back for the pin with 31 seconds left in the second period.
“I just had to stay composed because if I’m the best like I think I am, I had to get this guy,” he said.
Zepeda relied on his strengths, staying on his feet and working the top game to score takedowns at will. Zepeda was looking forward to a rematch with Valencia in the State final, but the Sobrato standout never got on the mat after failing to make weight.
The two grew up competing against each other and faced off three times this season, with Valencia winning two of them.
“I’m looking forward to getting that matchup next year,” Zepeda said. “Our whole lives, it hasn’t always been even [because he got me good in the earlier years].”
Zepeda got his start into wrestling in an unlikely way. When he was a fifth-grader at El Roble Elementary School, one of the janitors told Zepeda’s parents to put him into wrestling. It wasn’t long before Zepeda was rolling on the mat.
“When I was little, I was crazy, just running around a lot,” Zepeda said. “I was an active little kid and wrestling was a way to use all the energy I had.”
The symmetry to the Cortez brothers’ athletic careers align with their unity. They still share a room together and have an unparalleled bond. Both wrestlers had to be mentally tough against talented opponents to come out on top.
Isaiah Cortez edged El Dorado junior and Purdue University-commit Isaiah Quintero 1-0 while Elijah was also involved in a nail-biter, beating Buchanan freshman Joseph Toscano, 2-1.
“As soon as I won it was almost unreal,” Elijah said. “I knew I won but I didn’t really feel it until l walked off the mat. It was a really big moment because we have been dreaming about this our whole lives. We’ve been coming here and watching State for a long time thinking we’d be state champs one day. And that one day was us last night.”
Despite the brothers moving up two weight classes from last year, they compensated for that with added experience, skill and guile. That’s how Isaiah avenged his loss to Quintero in last year’s semifinals. He scored the only point in the match on an escape in the second period.
“This time I stuck to my game plan,” Isaiah said. “Having that mat awareness in those key moments played a role along with having a different mindset.”
Isaiah’s most impressive performance came in a dominating 8-0 major decision over Buchanan’s Ray Ray Harris, who is ranked No. 4 in the state. If Isaiah’s tourney run was relatively smooth, Elijah’s was filled with landmines.
He had to wrestle an extra match due to the draw, and faced a tough opponent in the round of 32, winning a 1-0 decision. Elijah followed with wins via major decision and pinfall before scoring an impressive 3-1 decision against Canyon Springs’ Richard Murrilo.
In the final against a bigger wrestler in Toscano, Elijah got caught in a semi-dangerous position near the end of the first period but escaped unscathed. Toscano rode Elijah out for most of the second period before the GHS standout used a Granby move to a head and arm to score a two-point reversal with four seconds left in the period.
Toscano scored his point on an escape in the third but Elijah was simply too tough the rest of the way, keeping distance and defending every takedown. The twins said they relied on their faith in God to overcome obstacles all season.
Wrestling runs in their family. They’re one of seven children, with Isaiah being approximately 90 minutes older than Elijah. Sharing the same faith, the same room, the same goals, the Cortez’s have pushed each other to be the best.
“I would say our bond is inseparable,” Isaiah said. “It goes beyond brotherly love. We have something I don’t think anyone in the state or world has and it’s a special connection you can’t explain.”