Chase Saldate and Nick Villarreal felt a wave of emotion during their national letter of intent signing event Nov. 12 at Gilroy High. In front of a throng of family members and friends, the standout seniors reflected on their achievements and how much work they had to put in to realize a dream and sign with Division I wrestling programs. Saldate has signed with Michigan State and Villarreal with Fresno State, the two being the latest in a long line of Gilroy High wrestlers who have moved on to the four-year level.
“It was kind of a roller coaster of emotions,” Saldate said. “I felt a bit overwhelmed and nervous because I’m this close to competing in college. It’s official now, and I’ll be out there soon.”
Said Villarreal: “It felt good, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, because this is something I’ve been looking forward to all the way back to middle school. The fact it has happened is relieving and felt good.”
Indeed, both Saldate and Villarreal vividly remember being in middle school and seeing former Gilroy High standout wrestlers sign to four-year programs, all of which had a lasting impact on them. Those images were seared into their minds and made them realize that they could be in that same position in the future. And that is exactly how things turned out. As a result, the Gilroy High wrestling dynasty goes on, because middle school students see the high school athletes earn scholarships through wrestling and know it can be done.
“I remember seeing some of the older guys sign and picturing myself doing the same,” Villarreal said.
“Seeing (former Gilroy standouts Nico Villareal and Paul Fox) sign and then I’m here all of a sudden, it’s an amazing feeling,” said Saldate, who also was touched by the appearance of former Gilroy High wrestling coach Greg Varela during the signing event.
Saldate and Villarreal both finished as runner-up in the CIF State Championships last March, Saldate at 138 pounds and Villarreal at heavyweight. You can bet both wrestlers thought about their second-place finishes and used it as motivation to take their game to another level. Saldate is noticeably bigger since the 2018-2019 high school season ended, having packed on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle.
He’ll most likely wrestle at 152 pounds this season as Michigan State coach Roger Chandler envisions Saldate wrestling in the mid to upper 150-pound range in college, Saldate said. Like Saldate, Villarreal seemingly has a huge upside as a collegiate wrestler, as he possesses a lean frame and athleticism, especially in his weight class. Villarreal expressed tremendous excitement in anticipation of being in the Fresno State program, as the Bulldogs have a roster filled with in-state recruits, many of whom Villarreal is familiar with.
“I see the Fresno State program as a California dream team,” Villarreal said. “A lot of the best guys from California are on this one team. I like that idea, and I like where the program is going right now. They have a lot of young guys getting better and better each year, and the program is getting better and better.”
Even though Saldate said he received several other offers from Division I programs, he felt Michigan State was the ideal fit. Saldate was in the seventh grade wrestling in a tournament in Las Vegas when he first met Chandler, who probably kept his eye out on Saldate from that moment on.
“A student of the sport and has very high goals to be an NCAA Champion,” Chandler said of Saldate on the Michigan State wrestling website. “There is without question that I know his commitment to be great will put him in a very good position to accomplish all of his goals.”
Since the CIF State Championships, Saldate and Villarreal have focused on improvement. Saldate won the prestigious Super 32, one of the nation’s top folk style wrestling tournaments. He’s ranked No. 21 overall in the class of 2020 and No. 3 in the country in the FloWrestling high school rankings at 152 pounds. He also got busy packing on some serious muscle through a rigorous strength-training program, which happens to be one of his disciplines.
After suffering an injury during the state title match, Villarreal took some time off to recuperate both his mind and body.
“Taking that loss in the finals hurt me for the next couple of months,” he said. “It was probably the only thing I was thinking about each day. When I came back from my break, every workout felt different because I knew if I wanted to win state next year I would have to get better and turn everything up in the wrestling room. From my strength, my conditioning and everything else in between, that is what is going to help me win the title next year.”
Villarreal said the mental game has been a huge focus of his after he admitted to getting too nervous before last year’s state final. He works out scenarios in his mind to improve his mental game, stay relaxed and be in the moment.
“I’ve been trying to get mentally tougher, and one of the ways is not to get stressed out or anxious before matches,” he said. “I’ve been working on going through scenarios in my head of big matches, big moments and how I’m going to react in those moments when the time comes.”