The packed gymnasium at Roybal Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles was roaring constantly and loudly during the City Section Wrestling finals. And it was a pretty apt metaphor.
Because on this Saturday night, Feb. 18, the gym — and the finals — belonged to the Tigers.
San Fernando boys’ and girls’ each won the 2017 team championships, and did so in diametrically opposite fashion. The girls’ team dominated the competition from the outset while the boys’ title, for all intents and purposes, went down to San Fernando’s final match.
High school girls’ wrestling is still in its infancy as a City Section-sanctioned sport. But San Fernando has developed the first great girls’ program. The team has won three of the first four championships — only Birmingham, in 2016, interrupted the streak — and this year the Lady Tigers left their paw prints all over the mats, placing 12 wrestlers in the 14 final matches, and producing eight champions.
Both numbers are staggering. The Lady Tigers have set a very high standard for others, including San Fernando, to follow.
Coach Fernando Gonzales — who was returning as head coach after a four-year hiatus to spend more time with his family — knew the 2017 girls’ team “had a chance to be special.” They were 11-0 in duel meets, and in the tournaments he put them in their team point totals were were usually among the top three.
“[The coaches] kept saying, ‘anything louder than a whisper would put a jinx on it.’ But we knew we had a good, solid group,” Gonzales said.
The faith was more than justified at the City finals. The competition began Friday, Feb. 17, and involved 35 girls’ teams. But after the preliminary rounds, San Fernando had an nearly insurmountable 36-point lead on second place Birmingham. It was not if the Tigers would win, but by how much.
“Even we were amazed,” admitted co-captain Trinity Duarte, a senior.
Paris Valencia was first individual champion, defeating Veronica Machain of Birmingham Community Charter on points, 6-5, in the106-pound division. Alexandra Cota clinched the team title by pinning Hannah Tanap of Carson High in the 116-pound division.
Other champions were Samantha Muñoz, who defeated Salma Morales, 6-4, in the 121-pound division; Duarte, who pinned Jessica Juarez of Bell High in the 131-pound division; Yea-Gi Sarabia, who pinned Chloe DeSousa of Granada Hills in the 137-pound division; Gianna Anaya, who defeated Zyana Cabrera of Birmingham, 8-2, in the 143-pound division; Adelina Parra, who pinned Alex Messing of Poly High in the 160-pound division; and Sandra Castrejon, who decisioned Adela Chavez of Poly, 11-4, in the 170-pound division.
The Lady Tigers finished with 306.00 team points, far outpacing Birmingham which totaled 252.00 points.
“I hope that other people can raise the bar as time progresses. But I think we made history doing it,” Muñoz said.
Gonzales was amazed and proud.
“There were a few teams I’ve had where we’d be in top contention for medals and trophies. But this was the best team, in the short history of girls wrestling, the section has produced,” he said.
The boys’ team’s success was a completely different story.
Even though the Tigers were 11-3 in their dual meets, Gonzales rarely fielded a full team during the season. The most wrestlers Gonzales could remember taking to a duel or tournament meet was nine.
“The boys had six kids we knew were good. Then we had to keep filling other weight classes,” Gonzales said. “But we kept telling all the kids how we needed them, how anyone of them could be the ‘X’ factor.”
The situation initially looked bleak at the preliminaries, however. One San Fernando wrestler couldn’t make weight in the 184-pound division. Another was upset in the first round. Gonzales, fighting acid reflex, was wondering if San Fernando would be so far down in the team point standings they had no chance.
But by end of the preliminaries, the Tigers were in second place, trailing boys’ team-leading Birmingham by five points.
“I was at first devastated, then dumbfounded,” Garcia said.
Both San Fernando and Birmingham had six finalists. Four of the first five Tigers wrestlers won their championship match — Kobe Lepe at 115-pounds; Matthew Garcia at 134-pounds; Eric Rocha at 140-pounds; and Trevor Gill at 154-pounds.
But the team title appeared to be in the hands of Jose Reyes, who was San Fernando’s final wrestler of the night.
Reyes was dueling Oliver Feagin of Carson High in the 220-pound division. If Reyes won, it would give the Tigers enough points to win the team championship outright. If he lost, San Fernando and Birmingham would be tied, and then tie-breaker criteria would be used.
One such criteria would be total number of matches won. It was here that San Fernando had the edge, with 40 matches won to 39 by Birmingham. That would have given San Fernando the title. But no one knew it at the time.
Reyes and Feagin battled to a 3-3 draw in regulation. Whoever scored first in the overtime would win. Feagin — who was looking tired — was called for stalling. A point was awarded to Reyes, making him the winner.
The first few moments after the referee’s decision were chaotic as people, in particular an infuriated Feagin who stormed out of the gym, tried to figure out what happened. In the confusion and shouting, the Birmingham side was assessed two flagrant misconduct penalties, which stripped them of 16 points from their team total.
Final result: San Fernando had won the championship with 236.50 points. Birmingham ended up with 216.50 points.
“I have seen that ending before,” Gonzales said. “Nothing against the Carson kid, but he didn’t have many offensive moves. He was blocking….his only scores were off our [attempts to take him down]. He was athletic and strong, and capitalized on our aggressiveness. But we kept the pressure on and he wore down.
“It was unfortunate that it happened, but the ref made the right call.”
Reyes agreed. “I knew what was going on…he was just backing up and taking fake shots at me. He was kinda always doing that.”
There are still state championships ahead. The girls will compete this week in Visalia, the boys next week in Bakersfield. The competition, from both Northern and Southern California, gets tougher.
But so does San Fernando.