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Mustang duo puts Otay Ranch on the state wrestling map Phillip Brents | Tue, Mar 29 2011 10:32 PM

The 2010-11 high school wrestling season was one of history-making proportions for the Otay Ranch Mustangs. Included were the east side Chula Vista school’s first-ever San Diego Section division and section individual champion (sophomore 103-pounder Tommy Espinoza) and first-ever state medalists (Espinoza and senior 112-pounder Eddie Estevez).

To cap the season, head coach Troy Vierra earned honors as the section’s CIF Coach of the Year. 

“It’s an honor to be the CIF Coach of the Year, but it’s the team that got it for me,” he said. “They’re the ones who go out there and win the matches.”

Vierra obviously remains modest. The results speak for themselves.

In historic proportion.

The feat by Espinoza and Estevez marks only the second time in 30 years that two wrestlers from the same South County school medaled at the state meet and only the second time that two Metro wrestlers from any school earned state medals in the same season. 

“To win a CIF title is a big deal but to place at Masters to get to state is an even bigger deal,” Vierra said. “But to earn a state medal is incredible.”

The two Mustang celebrities are among a short list of 10 Metro Conference state medalists in the event’s 38-year history. The Sweetwater Union High School District has been in existence for 80 years.

Hilltop had two state medallists in 1981: David Miller and Digo Cooper. Miller finished third in his 119-pound weight class while Cooper placed fourth at 126 pounds.

A decade passed before Chula Vista’s Mario Lopez earned a seventh-place finish at 160 pounds at the 1991 tournament.

Lopez’s state medal ushered in a very productive decade for the Metro Conference as Bonita Vista’s Mike Mendoza (fourth at 130 pounds) and Hilltop’s Tommy Sorenson (seventh at 125 pounds) both wrestled to state medals in 1994, followed by an eighth-place showing by Montgomery’s Christian Garcia (135 pounds) in 1996 and a fourth-place effort by Montgomery’s Thomas Juarez (130 pounds) in 1997.

Overall, the 1990s saw five South County grapplers earn state medals, including four in a short four-year span.

Eastlake’s Alexis Cano renewed the South Bay’s legacy by earning a seventh-place medal at 160 pounds at the 2003 state finals.

Estevez, the school’s first-ever state meet qualifier, matched the conference’s highest-ever place-finish by capturing a third-place medal, while Espinoza, the school’s first-ever CIF and Masters champion, recorded the highest place-finish by an underclassman.

Vierra admitted he was caught up in all the positive energy radiating from his wrestlers in Bakersfield.

“At the state meet, there isn’t much more you can do as a coach that you haven’t already done the whole season,” he said. “Your guys just have to go out there and wrestle their best because there’s no tomorrow for them. You try to settle them down and get them relaxed but you never know what you’re going to get. As our guys kept winning, it was fun to watch. It was exciting. You got the chance to just sit back yourself and feed off their energy. State is amazing. There’s no other place like it for a high school wrestler.”

A total of 560  wrestlers qualify for the state tournament but only 168 remain in contention after the first day of competition.

Vierra’s wrestling mantra of Focus-Composure-Heart (FCH) perhaps came into play in no greater measure than on the multicolored 10 mat surface at Rabobank Arena. Both Espinoza and Estevez embodied that acronym in the fullest sense.   

Estevez noted his trip to Bakersfield as a sophomore helped tremendously in terms of making him feel more comfortable in such a high stakes and meat-grinder atmosphere.

“I was relaxed,” said Estevez, who received the team’s FCH-Outstanding Wrestler award to cap a 42-5 season. “I knew it was my last year in terms of getting there and I was concerned with only wrestling my best. I had the mind-set that nothing could stop me.”

The season, he noted, easily could have ended on a downer. Estevez credited his mother, a member of the team’s parent booster organization, as providing that extra motivation at Masters. After losing in the semifinals, the Mustang mat man had to win two more matches in order to advance to the state meet.

“I was kind of burned out after not winning a CIF title,” he admitted. “But hearing my mother scream for me gave me the motivation to go out and dominate my final match against Brawley.”

Estevez won that match against Brawley’s Arthur Cardona by a score of 7-1 to place third and secure the final berth to the state meet in that weight class.

Espinoza received the team’s FCH-Most Dedicated award.

“The night after the first day I was really nervous,” said Espinoza, who finished the season 37-7. “The first round the second day was the do-or-die round. If you won, you got to get a medal. If you lost, you were out of the tournament. When I won the do-or-die match, I was proud of myself.”

Pride and self-confidence carried him the rest of the way. 

The magnitude of the Mustangs’ accomplishments were not lost on the greater community. In attendance at the team’s March 21 awards banquet were Sweetwater district superintendent Jesus Gandara and district board of trustees president John McCann.

ORHS founding principal Jose Brosz opened the festivities with a message of gratitude.

“There is no joy greater than watching the achievements of our students,” he said. “This is a historic moment for our school.”

Gandara, a former high school wrestler himself, also acknowledged the historic achievement by the Mustang duo.

“Wrestling is the greatest fraternity,” said ORHS assistant coach Bill Virchis, who has been involved in coaching five of the conference’s 10 state medallists. “It is mankind’s oldest sport. Nothing is worth doing without sacrifice. Wrestling mirrors life.”

Vierra, who was given a standing ovation when introduced as the section’s coach of the year, had previously announced this would be the final of his 20 seasons as a wrestling coach. Prior to coaching at ORHS, he coached 10 years at Eastlake High School, winning numerous league championships there following a stint at Chula Vista High School where he won two league titles.

Virchis has been with Vierra since the beginning, serving as coach at Hilltop High School during the early 1980s when the district had eliminated virtually all minor sports.

Vierra subsequently attended Chico State where he won a conference championship. Vierra joined the CVHS staff as an assistant coach in 1990 and took over as head coach the following season. Virchis has been at his side in some capacity ever since.

“Troy has had success wherever he has gone,” Virchis said succinctly.

“The hardest part of being a coach is finding what to say to a senior who has just lost the final match of his high school career, and who will probably never ever wrestle again in his life,” Vierra said. “It’s horrible. Fortunately, this year I didn’t have to worry about that as both my guys won their last matches at state.”

Vierra said he will remain as a teacher at Otay Ranch despite stepping down as the team’s head coach. He said he will mentor his successor in formally handing over the reins of the program, whoever that might be.    

Brosz addressed Vierra’s departure. “We’re not here to replace greatness but to replenish it,” the ORHS principal said.

Mustangs magic

Otay Ranch finished the season with five Mesa League champions and four conference champions. First team all-league medalists include Espinoza, Estevez, Albert Lopez (145 pounds), Cody Springsguth (152 pounds) and LaRae Butler (189 pounds). All but Butler won conference championships.

Three Mustangs qualified for the elite Division I finals: Espinoza, Estevez and Lopez, with Estevez and Lopez finishing second. Otay Ranch qualified a total of seven wrestlers for the Masters tournament, placing 10th in the 63-team section championship event.

The Mustangs finished 10-1 in dual meets, placing second to Eastlake for the 2010-11 Mesa League championship. Otay Ranch, however, finished higher (sixth) than the Titans (eighth) at the ensuing Division I finals.

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