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By Nick Ellis / Special to The Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer email@example.com
Bakersfield High's J.J. Figueroa figured it might be nice to qualify for the CIF State Wrestling Championships as a freshman, just to soak in the experience.
Soak this, J.J.: You're ranked No. 3 in the state at 113 pounds and have a chance to become one of California's rarest wrestlers: A freshman state champion.
"I never expected to do this much as a freshman," said Figueroa, who won multiple youth state titles. "I just wanted to be a state qualifier. Now I figure I've got nothing to lose."
Figueroa was hanging around in the top 10 of The California Wrestler's state rankings, but it wasn't until last weekend's Central Section Masters that he made his big move, beating state No. 1 Adrian Camposano of Fresno-Central in the semifinals and then knocking out No. 4 Matt Gamble of Porterville-Monache for the title.
Now, he's No. 3, behind only Brawley's Vincent Elizalde and Gamble, who has won two of three meetings this year with Figueroa and so retains the higher ranking.
"I'm just getting used to all of this," Figueroa said. "I've improved a lot in my mental ability during a match. I've been watching state since I was in fifth grade, so to do well would mean a lot."
Same goes for the other Bakersfield freshmen to qualify, 106-pounder Navonte Demison and 160-pounder Sam Loera.
Demison has family expectations, too: Older brothers Nektoe and Natrelle each placed third.
"Growing up seeing my brothers wrestle in it just makes it more exciting," Navonte said.
The freshmen trio has keyed the Drillers' late-season surge, which moved them from No. 11 to No. 8 in the state's team rankings. BHS has 10 qualifiers, tied for fourth among teams at the meet. Included are four ranked in the top 10 of their weight class: senior Bryce Martin (No. 2 at 170), Figueroa, Demison (No. 10 at 106) and junior Carlos Herrera (No. 9 at 120).
Expectations are always high at a school that has won three state championships, but for young Bakersfield, it's a good start.
"They came in very talented; they were guys who have wrestled for many years," Drillers coach Andy Varner said. "The last couple of weeks, they've hit another gear. They're peaking at the right time."
GV wrestler breaks through
Julio Fuentes, a 160-pound junior, is the first Golden Valley wrestler to reach state in the history of the school, which opened in 2003.
"Every year we've had kids that should be there and get so close, and then they get a match that doesn't go their way, like they just couldn't get off bottom one more time," Golden Valley coach Aaron Wherry said. "Those are the heartbreakers, when you put so much in and come so close."
Then came Fuentes, who hadn't wrestled before high school and didn't make the Bulldogs' varsity until the end of his freshman year because of another wrestler's injury.
"He put in work in the offseason and caught up to the guys in front of him," Wherry said. "It means a lot to the program."
North High's program has a much richer history, from famous wrestling alumnus Kevin Harvick to past state medalists Lewis McNabb (1978) and Joe Cemo (1989). But the well had dried up for the Stars, too, lately, until heavyweight Mark Guerrero became the first North wrestler to qualify since Joey Thomason in 2008.
"The biggest thing is he's one of those kids who does everything you ask," coach Brady Garner said.
Centennial 152-pounder Andrew Lee had his own sort of breakthrough: He's the first Golden Hawks qualifier since Seth Hicks won a state title for Centennial in 2009. He also overcame a weight snafu midway through the season where he failed to tell coaches he wasn't going to move to 145 pounds until it was too late.
"We were on the brink of kicking him out of the room," assistant coach Ken Gabin said. "But since then, he's been a different kid."
FCA breakfast Saturday
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes wrestling division will hold its annual Champions Breakfast at 6:45 a.m. Saturday.
The event's guest speaker is Mark Munoz, a former NCAA wrestling champion for Oklahoma State and a mixed martial arts standout.
Tickets are $10. The breakfast is held in the Potato Room of the Marriott Hotel next to Rabobank Arena.
Mongolian wrestling team
Among those taking in the state meet this weekend will be the Mongolian national wrestling team, coached by former California state champion Steve Barrett.
Barrett won a state title for Ranchos Palos Verdes-Miraleste in 1973, the first year of the state championships. He then wrestled at Oklahoma State and has not returned to California until this week.
The Mongolian team will compete in wrestling's World Cup, March 15-16 in Los Angeles. The wrestlers are in Bakersfield for five days before going to L.A.; they're staying with local wrestling families.
"Mongolia's only got 2.7 million people, but wrestling is definitely the national sport," Barrett said. "These guys will be watching (the state meet) with wide-open eyes."
Four times, a team has won three consecutive team titles. Three of those instances belong to Clovis' storied program, and the Cougars would like to become the first to win four straight Saturday.
Chances are good. Clovis is ranked No. 3 nationally, and The California Wrestler projects it'll score 220 team points this weekend, within striking distance of their record 256.5 from two years ago. The next-closest projection? No. 2 Poway with 113.
Clovis is buoyed by two championship favorites: senior Nick Nevills, a two-time state champion who is ranked No. 1 nationally by Intermat at heavyweight; and freshman Justin Mejia, No. 5 nationally at 106 pounds.
In between, the Cougars have wrestlers ranked in the top 20 at all 14 weight classes, including Wasco transfers Isaiah Hokit (132) and Josh Hokit (160).