Fri, Mar 01 2013 12:06 PM Posted By: Phillip Brents
Talk to Otay Ranch High School senior Tommy Espinoza about wrestling and there is an immediate gleam in his eyes. But talk to Espinoza about his performance in any particular match or tournament and you’ll likely get a less than glowing review.
That’s because Espinoza measures his success against very high standards.
Very high, to be exact.
“Everything is a stepping stone to the post-season,” he said. “It’s not that everything else doesn’t matter, because it does, but what matters most to me is how I perform in the post-season.”
Espinoza will measure his degree of success for the third consecutive year by his performance at this weekend’s California state championship tournament in Bakersfield. He earned a seventh-place medal as a sophomore but was shut out of a medal last year.
He’s hoping to return home with shiny hardware this time, possibly even gold.
“My goal is always to win state,” he said with the steely-eyed stare of a champion.
Espinoza (32-5) advanced to the state meet by winning San Diego Masters championship titles as a sophomore and junior. This year’s road to Bakersfield took an unexpected turn, however, when he was forced to win a high-stakes third-place match.
Only the top three place-winners in each of 14 weight classes at the San Diego Masters advance to the state meet.
Seeded third in his 108-pound weight bracket, Espinoza advanced to the semifinal round with a 3:39 pin in the second round and 16-0 technical fall in the quarterfinals.
His opponent in the semifinals was Brawley’s Vicente Elizalde. Many had expected Espinoza and Elizalde to meet in the championship round. But Poway senior Tirso Lara earned the No. 1 seed in the weight class, thus relegating one of the most highly anticipated match-ups of the tournament to the semifinals.
Elizalde won 5-1 and then went on to top Lara by a 14-2 major decision in the finals to improve to 43-0 on the season.
“In a match like that with two wrestlers of about the same caliber, often it is the first takedown that dictates the flow of the match,” Otay Ranch coach Gabe Ruz explained. “I feel if Tommy had gotten that first takedown, that match might have had a different ending.”
The loss to Elizalde dropped Espinoza to the consolation semifinals. In order to qualify for the state meet, the Mustang mat man was required to win two additional matches.
Espinoza advanced to the all-important third place match by taking care of business with a 1:52 pin against Carlsbad junior Jacob Cornell. The ORHS grappler had previously pinned Cornell in the finals at the Division I championship tournament a week earlier.
The win pushed Espinoza to the bronze medal round against La Costa Canyon freshman Kai Kramer.
Kramer had finished second at the Division II championship tournament but dropped a 14-2 major decision to Lara in the Masters semis.
Espinoza had his game face on in his biggest match of the season. He forgot about winning his weight class at the Metro Conference and the Division I finals. His focus was winning the bronze medal at Masters.
It wasn’t gold but securing it would be a golden opportunity.
The Mustang wrestler quickly took the action to Kramer and built a lead. But two moves backfired in near-devastating fashion to give the LCC matster a 13-8 advantage with 35 seconds remaining.
In half a minute, a potential season laden with glory would somehow be inexplicably over.
The crowd in the Eastlake High School gym quickly shifted its allegiance to the freshman and fans who had been cheering for Espinoza at the start of the match suddenly were rooting for an upset.
But Espinoza knew it was the last match that counted most, and he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet.
The score was 13-11 with five seconds left; he recorded two points with one second left to tie the match.
Espinoza was wearing his game face again. There was no way he was going to be beaten, and he wouldn’t be in that match, winning on the first takedown in overtime.
The packed gym exploded with cheers — and a few jeers.
Espinoza held out his hand to his fallen opponent and kept it outstretched, looking away, until Kramer, leisurely taking his time to get off the mat, finally shook it.
After the referee raised his arm to denote his thrilling 15-13 win, Espinoza bolted out of the gym to collect his own emotions.
“I won’t say it was unexpected but I always expect to win,” Espinoza said. “It’s one of those things that you have to get over and move on. I did the same move twice and gave him 10 points. It put me in trouble I shouldn’t have been in. Otherwise, I was winning in neutral.
“But nothing matters until the end. I’m going to state. Masters was just another stepping stone.”
One that proved just a little too bumpy.
While Espinoza was the Metro Conference’s lone state qualifier this year, he nearly had three other conference mat men join him.
Also battling for third-place finishes were Hilltop’s Cruz Jaime (115) and Jordan Griffin (122) and Bonita Vista’s Allin Breland (154).
All finished fourth with tough-luck losses.
Jaime, a Metro champion and Division II runner-up, ended his season with a 5-0 setback to Brawley sophomore Isaac Moreno. The Lancer senior had previously lost to Moreno, 8-4, in the Masters quarterfinals.
Griffin, another Metro champion and Division II runner-up, bowed out of Masters with a 9-4 loss to Poway junior Taylor Dial. It was the third loss to Dial in the span of a week. The Hilltop senior lost 7-5 to Dial at the divisional championships and 9-3 in the Masters quarterfinals.
Breland, one of the surprises at the two-day Masters tournament, advanced to the semifinals with a stunning 9-7 upset victory against Vista senior Dylan Matteo, the No. 2 seed in the weight class. However, the Baron senior was not able to maintain his momentum by dropping a 7-4 decision to Cathedral Catholic senior Cameron Chavez.
Breland, a 2013 Metro champion and third at the Division II finals, had tied the match at 4-4 just seconds into the third period against Chavez.
Still, BVHS coach Luis Ojeda remained proud of his wrestler’s otherwise shining performance.
Breland entered Masters seeded 12th but finished fourth. He dropped his final match, 10-5, to Poway sophomore Cody Doyle.
Both Jaime and Griffin won three elimination matches in the second day of competition; they needed to win four to advance to state.
“Mostly I tell the kids not to tense up — not to worry about winning or losing, just wrestle to the best of their ability,” Hilltop coach Tom Juarez said. “Whenever you meet opponents who have beaten you in the past, you have to block it out and stay positive.
“This is the tournament where dreams are made and crushed in the same day. Our guys didn’t make it but they’re still champions in our eyes.”
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