This year’s San Diego Masters state wrestling qualifying tournament has to go down in memory as one of the best showcases for the section in terms of section-wide representation and success.
This year’s 14 individual champions came from 10 different schools while 16 schools overall were represented by wrestlers in the championship round.
While perennial section power Poway once again captured the team title by a whopping margin, the Titans only managed to send six mat men to the finals, three emerging with titles.
It was a far cry from previous seasons in which Poway would qualify nearly its entire team in pursuit of a state title. The Titans will send eight wrestlers to this weekend’s state meet in Bakersfield, still the most among any section team.
A changing of the guard? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly added an element of excitement for spectators.
And last weekend’s 63-school gathering at Canyon Crest Academy certainly proved exciting for three South County wrestlers who reached their goal of qualifying for this year’s state championship meet.
The top three place-finishers in each of 14 weight classes advanced from the section Masters meet to the state meet.
Otay Ranch sophomore Tommy Espinoza captured the 105-pound weight class while Hilltop senior Roman Flores finished second in his 162-pound division.
Otay Ranch senior Eddie Estevez qualified as the third-place finisher at 114 pounds.
The state tournament begins Friday, March 4, and concludes Saturday, March 5, at the Rabobank Arena.
Espinoza becomes Otay Ranch’s first-ever Masters champion while Estevez becomes a two-time state meet qualifier.
Espinoza, the reigning Division I champion, looked confident throughout the tournament. He opened the two-day mat fest with a 3:31 pin, followed by a 15-10 decision in the quarterfinals and a 13-9 decision over Valhalla junior Shawn Miller in the semifinals. The Mustang grappler out-pointed Brawley freshman Vincent Elizalde, 5-2, in the championship match.
Espinoza (32-5) was seeded third in the weight class while Miller was seeded second and Elizalde was seeded first. Not bad for running the table at the section’s toughest tournament.
“It was one of the happiest moments in my life,” Espinoza gushed. “I put my heart and soul into wrestling. It feels great because I like to win.”
The Otay Ranch mat man qualified for the state meet as a semifinal winner. Espinoza said the victory over Miller was doubly gratifying because it avenged a loss during the freestyle season.
“I owe it all to my coaches, my brothers (teammates) Eddie (Estevez), Cody (Springsguth), Albert (Lopez) for pushing me, and No. 1 to my parents for supporting me,” he said.
Estevez , the Division I runner-up, was seeded fourth at Masters and won his opening two matches in commanding fashion — a 20-5 technical fall and a 5:52 pin —to advance to the semifinals against top-seeded Micah Perez, a sophomore from Central Union. Perez bested Estevez, 10-4, to drop the Mustang wrestler to the consolation semifinal where a victory was need to send him to the third place match and another chance at qualifying for the state meet.
Estevez (29-4) eliminated Steele Canyon’s Jessie Cardenas from state berth contention with a 12-2 major decision and then topped Brawley junior Arthur Carmona, 7-1, to secure the bronze medal.
Tears welled up in the Mustang grappler’s eyes as the final seconds counted down. No words were necessary to describe the emotional impact of the win.
“It’s exciting and exhausting at the same time,” Otay Ranch head coach Troy Vierra said. ”This is where you know you are a part of the elite competition.”
Meanwhile, Hilltop’s Flores was both figuratively and literally enjoying a second season after suffering a near season-ending facial injury at January’s Holtville Invitational. Flores suffered a smashed nose and concussion in the finals match at the desert tourney and missed three weeks on the mat before returning to win the Division II individual title in a heroic performance.
The Hilltop matster entered Masters seeded third. Forced to wear a protective mask, Flores captured a 13-3 major decision and 11-7 minor decision to advance to the semifinals against second-seeded Jesse Orona of Carlsbad. Flores eked out a 6-5 win to advance to the finals against Poway senior Henry Donahue, one of the Titans’ more decorated wrestlers this season. Donahue (45-4) won 12-5.
Flores carries a 33-7 record into this weekend’s state tourney.
“I knew it would take a while to recover,” he said. “I missed league but I wanted to be strong for CIF and state. My speed might have suffered a little but my technique was up to par.”
Hilltop assistant coach Juan Miranda called Flores “hungry” for the time he missed on the mat. “He was upset that he couldn’t be there with the guys for league finals,” Miranda said. “That really motivated him for CIF. He came out on fire at CIF and here he was ready to wrestle.”
It was a strong showing for Metro mat men this season, as two more South County grapplers — Sweetwater senior Adan Mendez (137) and Mater Dei Catholic senior Efren Roman — just missed qualifying for the state meet with fourth-place finishes.
Mendez advanced to the quarterfinals, losing an 8-1 match to top-seeded Jesse Taylor of Poway. The SuHi wrestler then won three consecutive matches to engineer a dramatic comeback and was leading in the third place match before Ramona senior Connor Koch scored on a reversal with 28 seconds left to win 4-3.
Roman also advanced to the quarterfinals before dropping a 6-0 decision to third-seeded Devin Rhodes of Ramona. The Crusader mat man won three straight matches to advance to the bronze medal match against Vista junior Jordan Donahue. But Roman could not complete his comeback, dropping a narrow 5-3 decision.
This year, matches for fifth place were contested. All totaled, there were 11 South County Masters place-winners .
Hilltop sophomore Jordan Griffin (105), San Ysidro senior Joey Alvarez (121), Eastlake junior Mathias Mendillo (127) and Eastlake sophomore Stevie Cervantes (162) were fifth while Bonita Vista senior Carlos Ayala (132) and Eastlake senior Gabriel Nelson (173) were sixth.
Griffin and Ayala both advanced to the semifinals but both dropped their ensuing matches in the consolation semifinals to drop out of contention for a state berth.
Top eight finishes were turned in by four Metro wrestlers: Chula Vista junior Damien Alcala (114), Mar Vista senior Max Uribe (132), Otay Ranch senior Albert Lopez (147) and San Ysidro senior Fernando Lopez (191).
Ramona, with five state qualifiers, finished runner-up to Poway in this year’s Masters. Vista (three state qualifiers) and Brawley (two state qualifiers) tied for third place. Rancho Buena Vista (one state qualifier) finished fifth, followed by Rancho Bernardo (four state qualifiers) in sixth place.
Among South County teams, Eastlake finished 14th, Hilltop was 18th, Chula Vista was 30th, San Ysidro was 36th, Olympian was 38th, Sweetwater was 39th, Mater Dei Catholic was 41st and Mar Vista was 47th.
Central Union’s Antonio Perez (137) earned honors as the tournament’s outstanding lower weight wrestler while Vista senior Alex Kelley (287) was named the tournament’s outstanding upper weight wrestler.
Poway senior 217-pounder Porfi Sosa received the coveted Jay Penacho award.
For complete results, visit the Web site at www.sdprepsports.com/sdgrappler. To follow the state tournament, visit the Web site at www.cifstate.org.