SportStars Magazine

Gilroy Wrestling Squad is Harvesting Gold

Gilroy’s Veteran Wrestling Squad Is Poised To Make More Mat History •

Story by IKE DODSON | Photos by DOUG STRINGER

Nested in the aptly-named Central Coast Section, Gilroy High is a short drive from the serene sands that border Monterey Bay.

During dry summers, the ocean must beckon youth that seek an escape from the town of 55,000, known for its garlic, wineries and a few fleeting exits on Route 101.

It’s why the wrestlers who don gold and blue singlets for coach Greg Varela are a special breed.

“No one wants to train in June when the beach is 40 minutes away,” Varela admitted. “That’s the hard part, but they love being a part of the team, being recognized and getting the accolades.”

Those accolades will be measured in “oodles” this season.

Gilroy returns every wrestler from last year’s historic postseason, one that matched a school record for medals won at the California Interscholastic Federation State Championships (four) and set a record for team points accrued (297.5) and pins (37) at the CCS Championships.

The Mustangs sport nine returning CIF qualifiers and welcome three of the toughest freshmen in the state. The team dominates the landscape of SportStars’ first NorCal rankings, thanks to 10 individuals in the top four of their weight classes.

It will take three grueling months to find out what Gilroy wrestling is made of.

“We are excited because we have a lot of potential, but in the end, the rankings aren’t going to win us matches,” Valera said. “We are proud to be recognized, but it’s just the beginning.

“We have to put in the work.”

Daniel Vizcarra will likely wrestler at 132 pounds this season after a CCS runner-up finish at 126s last season.

Gilroy’s lineup will adjust as the year progresses, but a team this good is going to find a way to send wrestlers deep into state brackets.

Incredibly, the 2017-18 squad has already posted 56 match wins at the CIF Championships. Senior Alex Felix owns 17 of those, and will vie for his fourth state medal this year. He was third as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and third again last year (all at 132 pounds). Felix could land at 145 or 138 this season.

Two-time state runner-up Nicolaus Aguilar is the consensus No. 1 in California at 120, and hopes to cap his prep career in golden fashion. He has won 11 matches at state.

It’s the same goal senior Tony Andrade chases after ending second in the state at 195 last year. Junior Joseph Barnes, eighth at 160, also seeks the ultimate neckwear, this time at 170.

Sophomore Chase Saldate (126), junior Dan Vizcarra (132), junior John Fox (152), junior Nathaniel Villarreal (160) and sophomore Nicolas Villarreal (220) will seek their first medals after combining for 10 wins at state last year.

Gilroy’s elite freshmen are all packed into the lowest two weight classes.

Jayden Gomez, No. 1 in NorCal at 106, was decorated in state and national competitions in junior high. His sparring partners will include Victor Jacinto and Nathan Aguilar, 113-pound stalwarts who will wrestle challenge matches when only one varsity spot is available at competitions.

They are likely the three best CCS wrestlers at those two weight classes, so practice will be intense as the three struggle for leverage in the lineup.

“We are a family here, so even though they compete for the same job, they support each other,” Valera said. “Each guy gets better, and no one can just sit and relax.

“They are all hungry and train hard because they know someone will be training hard behind them.”

It’s exhausting work, but the program has a bevy of support.

“Our administration and teachers support and recognize our kids,” Valera said. “It feels good to be a part of that and see our kids get the pat on the back.”

Joseph Barnes, who finished 8th at the CIF state tournament in 2017, recently starred at running back for Gilroy’s first section championship football team.

It’s easy to see why.

Gilroy has won the last 15 CCS titles. It’s no coincidence that streak began the same year Valera took the reigns of the program. He’s coached 10 individual state champions across that span and watched his wrestlers nab 43 state medals.

It helps that a few remarkable wrestling families call Gilroy home. Surnames like Fox, Villarreal, Kastl, Gonzalez and Penyacsek seem to roll through the roster every few years, albeit with a different face.

“Most of our team has had a brother or cousin come through the program,” Valera said. “It’s beneficial to us because those kids see the pressure they have to go through to get to that elite level, and then they begin their own journey with similar sacrifices.”

Valera said the alumni, many of them now college wrestlers, will come into the room and make the team better.

“Its that brotherhood, that family atmosphere that makes the little guys want to be like the older guys,” he said. “We have young kids who come in here still learning the basics and they get exposed to that.”

Gilroy opens the season at the Clovis West Shootout Dec. 9. The Mustangs finished runner-up to Clovis last year, despite titles by Aguilar, Felix, Andrade and Nathan Villarreal.

The Mustangs will also face elite competition at the Reno Tournament of Champions Dec. 15, the Doc Buchanan Jan. 5, The Temecula Battle for the Belt Jan. 12 and MidCals Jan. 26. The five tournaments are considered some of the best on the entire West Coast.

But Valera encourages a little play with Gilroy’s work.

He said his wrestlers enjoy an assemblage of routines and superstitions that express the many personalities on the roster.

“These guys are as kooky as it gets,” he said with a laugh. “Some guys have certain shorts they have to wear, or T-shirts from a tournament they won in fifth grade they have under their warm-ups.

“They have all kinds of weird eating rituals. We had a guy who hated peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he won a big match after eating one once, so he ate them all the time for luck.”

It probably won’t take a special sandwich to achieve excellence this year, but just in case, don’t forget the Jif.

A shot of the 2017 CCS Champions with the seven individual champs holding up their brackets.

 

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