Thu, Mar 08 2012 12:37 AM Posted By: Phillip Brents
The Metro Conference has held its own at the San Diego Section Masters wrestling championship tournament in recent years and last weekend’s event was no exception.
Heading into the final two rounds of the two-day state-qualifying tournament that wrapped up last Saturday (Feb. 25) at Otay Ranch High School, nine South County grapplers were still in contention to punch their ticket to Bakersfield.
But Masters remains, in the words of more than one coach, the “great equalizer” of talent. Only the top three place-finishers (out of 24 entrants) in each of 14 weight classes qualify for the state meet.
Success can prove elusive even when it appears within firm grasp.
Of the nine hopefuls, three area mat men survived this year’s meat-grinder to earn trips to this weekend’s state tournament.
Otay Ranch junior Tommy Espinoza pushed his season record to 42-0 to lead the pack after capturing a thrilling last-second 4-2 victory against top-seeded Vinny Elizalde of Brawley in the 106-pound championship match.
Chula Vista senior Bogart Marquez finished third in his 145-pound division while Eastlake senior heavyweight Gabe Casillas also notched a third-place finish.
There could have been a few more. Southwest sophomore Miguel Flores finished fourth in his 113-pound weight class while Eastlake senior Mathias Mendillo (138), Olympian senior Devon Flores (182) and Hilltop senior Claudio Narez-Ortiz (285) each placed fifth. Hilltop junior Jordan Griffin (113) and San Ysidro senior Jon Bastien both took sixth-place finishes.
Griffin, Marquez and Casillas all joined Espinoza in the championship semifinals to score prestige points for local mat programs.
Upsets rained down on wrestlers throughout the 70-team tournament, and no one seemed safe — even heavily favored grapplers from the current hotbed of the sport in North County.
Many have tried to define that mysterious force that seems to permeate this annual mega-tournament but it remains difficult to interpret.
Hilltop head coach Thomas Juarez, a two-time Masters champion for Montgomery High School in 1996-97, suggested it is a combination of things.
“You have to be physically prepared over the long course of the season but the main thing about Masters is mental — you’ve got to be focused throughout the tournament,” he said. “You’ve got to be mentally ready.”
Espinoza defines the word “focus” perhaps more than any wrestler in South County and that has undeniably led to his runaway success this season after earning a seventh-place medal at last year’s state finals as a sophomore.
He found himself down 2-1 to Elizalde (44-4) on an escape and false start penalty with the final seconds quickly ticking off the clock. But the reigning Metro Conference outstanding lower weight wrestler patiently waited for his move and gave one final shot, taking down his opponent with a tenuous single second left in the match.
Espinoza jumped up and immediately pointed to his chest amid raucous cheers from his Mustang supporters. There was no need to decipher the gesture.
It was all about heart.
“I knew I had to keep my cool, keep composed, just stay focused,” he said. “When you’re trailing in a match, you’ve got to keep thinking you can find a way to win.”
The final seconds produced pandemonium in the Otay Ranch gym.
“I had a takedown but I didn’t think I would finish it,” said Espinoza, who was seeded third in his weight class. “But I popped my head out and said ‘Whoa!’ It was a pretty exciting moment.”
It was the understatement of the tournament.
Espinoza finished 4-0. Included was a key 7-4 victory against Poway junior Tirso Lara, the No. 2 seed in the weight class, in the semifinals earlier in the day. The match-up was a rematch of the pair’s Division I finals match the previous week that went 6-5 to Espinoza.
Semifinal winners at Masters assured themselves of a trip to the state meet.
ORHS coach Gabe Ruz said execution at critical junctures is vital “because you’re wrestling the best guys in San Diego.”
“Coming into Masters, Tommy was ranked No. 3 in the state but we want that No. 1 spot,” Ruz said.
Marquez, seeded fifth, and Casillas, seeded fourth, both finished 4-1 at Masters.
Because of their winner-take-all nature, the third-place matches at Masters are often the most exciting – and emotional.
Marquez dropped his semifinal match by a 17-2 technical fall against eventual weight class champion Travis Ino of San Marcos, but responded by pinning Poway sophomore Josh Egli in 48 seconds in the consolation semifinals to advance to the bronze medal match against Rancho Buena Vista senior Undre Hobson, the No. 3 seed.
Marquez had finished fifth at the Division I finals behind Hobson (first) and Egli (third) but wasn’t daunted by the competition. He defeated Hobson by a decisive 15-4 major decision to nail down the final state-qualifying berth in the weight class.
“I knew my teammates were expecting one of their captains to make it to state and I didn’t want to let them down,” said the humble Marquez, the reigning Metro champion in his weight division. “I’d wrestled him (Hobson) twice this season and lost to him twice. I knew what to do this time. I was prepared.”
Casillas, meanwhile, appeared to have his semifinal match under control against Poway senior Kelly Simmons, the top-seeded wrestler in the weight. But as the pair tangled in overtime, the Eastlake grappler attempted a move that essentially backfired on him to give Simmons the match-winning takedown at the edge of the mat.
“At that point, I knew I made it doubly hard on myself but I knew I could come back,” Casillas said.
The EHS heavyweight eliminated, by a 7-4 decision, Hilltop’s Narez-Ortiz in a brutal all-Metro match-up in the consolation semifinals and then pinned Mt. Miguel junior Josh Tausga in 3:03 to cinch third place.
Casillas enters the state meet 25-4.
Narez-Ortiz bounced back to record a 4-2 victory against San Ysidro’s Bastien for fifth place to finish 6-2 at Masters while Eastlake’s Mendillo claimed an injury default victory against Steele Canyon senior David Diem, the No. 2 seed, to record his fifth-place finish and finish the two-day tourney 5-2.
Olympian’s Flores, the 2012 Metro outstanding upper weight wrestler, also went 5-2 at Masters. He pinned University City sophomore Tyler Roman in 4:40 to make amends for a 5-4 loss to the Centurion mat man at the preceding Division III finals.
SY’s Flores put up a roadblock to the state meet for Hilltop’s Griffin by capturing a 6-5 decision in their consolation semifinal match. Flores then dropped a 10-0 major decision to Monte Vista junior Everett Pratt in the battle for the final state-qualifying spot.
A total of 15 schools were represented in the championship round, led by team champion Poway with nine finalists, six champions and 12 state qualifiers. Wrestlers from nine school won weight class titles.
Brawley finished second in the team standings while San Marcos was third. Defending Metro team champion San Ysidro (14th) was the highest South County team at this year’s Masters.
The 2012 state championship tournament takes place Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3. For updates, visit the Web site at www.cifstate.org.
© 2009 The Star-News