If Justin Mejia equals the greatest individual achievement in California high school wrestling history this weekend, he’ll have earned it the hard way.
Standing between the Clovis High senior and a fourth title at the CIF State Wrestling Championships – which begin Friday and conclude Saturday at Bakersfield’s Rabobank Arena – is one of the most accomplished groups in one of the 14 weight divisions in recent memory.
Mejia’s quest to join Bakersfield’s Darrell Vasquez (1999-2002) as the only four-time champions in the history of a single-division tournament launched in 1973 is the marquee attraction of what’s expected to be a banner weekend for the Central Section. Other highlights include top-ranked Buchanan’s bid to repeat as team champion; attempts for second straight individual titles by Buchanan’s Matthew Olguin and Ethan Leake, Bakersfield’s Navonte Demison and Clovis’ Seth Nevills; and 16 top-two seeded wrestlers.
Clovis coach Steve Tirapelle said Mejia’s task is huge: “It’s a very deep, tough weight class. It’s probably the toughest weight in the tournament, which is surprising. Usually, people try to avoid a defending champion.”
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Mejia, ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 3 nationally, will chase a fourth gold medal in a 44-man, 126-pound weight division featuring nine other previous state medalists, including national No. 9 Isaiah Perez of Dinuba, No. 18 Jaden Abas of Rancho Bernardo and No. 19 Robert Garcia IV of Selma.
It’s going to be an undertaking. It’s a very deep, tough weight class. It’s probably the toughest weight in the tournament, which is surprising. Usually, people try to avoid a defending champion.
Clovis coach Steve Tirapelle on Justin Mejia’s quest to become the second four-time individual state champion in California wrestling history
Other previous medalists in the state meet are Poway’s Chase Zollman, Pitman-Turlock’s Adam Velasquez, Buchanan’s Tyler Deen, Bellarmine-San Jose’s Isaiah Palomino, Orland’s Enrique Landeros and Bakersfield’s Izzak Olejnik. The group has combined for 15 state medals.
By comparison, the 120-pound division features seven returning medalists who have combined for eight medals, including reigning 113-pound champ Leake. The 132-pound division has five returning medalists who have combined for eight medals with no reigning champion.
Not that the competition worries Mejia, who captured the 106-pound title as a freshman, 113 as a sophomore and 120 as a junior and has a career record of 163-1. Vasquez was 201-7 in his four-year career.
“I had the opportunity to go 120, but I like a challenge,” said Mejia, who is 33-0 on the season. “I want to compete and wrestle the best. It doesn’t bug me having them in the same weight as me. I know it’s going to be a challenge – every state tournament is. But I’ve just got to go out and wrestle.”
Mejia is battled tested against several of his top competitors, going a combined 6-0 this season against Perez, Garcia, Abas and Deen, including a 4-3 victory over Perez in the semifinals and a 3-2 win against Garcia in the final at Masters last weekend. Mejia beat Abas 6-0 during the Doc Buchanan final in a rematch of last season’s state 120-pound final, which Mejia won by pin in 3:35 over the son of former Fresno State star Gerry Abas.
“The more you wrestle them, the more difficult it is to beat them – that’s the nature of our sport,” Tirapelle said. “But I have faith in him. He can do it. I’ve seen him compete under pressure, seem him compete when it means something. When he needs more, he’s got it.”
Only three previous wrestlers have reached the finals with the opportunity to win a fourth state title: Independence-San Jose’s Jacob Palomino, Vasquez and Selma’s Alex Cisneros.
It would be great to end with my fourth state title, but if it doesn’t go my way, I’ve just got to keep wrestling. I’ve got bigger things I want to do still.
Clovis’ Justin Mejia, who will chase a record-tying fourth individual state wrestling title before heading off to wrestle in college at Illinois
Palomino lost to Vasquez as the Bakersfield star won his third title in 2001, Vasquez beat Clovis’ Jason Williams for his fourth title in 2002, and Cisneros let a 3-0 lead in the final 9 seconds slip away in a 5-3 loss to Gilroy’s Nikko Villarreal in 2012.
Regardless of how Mejia does this weekend, one of the nation’s top college recruits is headed to Illinois, where he hopes to emulate former Lemoore star Isaiah Martinez and become an NCAA champion.
“I set this goal a long time ago,” Mejia said of winning four state titles. “It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. It would be great to end with my fourth state title, but if it doesn’t go my way, I’ve just got to keep wrestling. I’ve got bigger things I want to do still.”
CIF STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
- When: 9 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Finals at 7 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield
- Tickets: Adult tickets start at $11 Friday and $12 Saturday; students and seniors are $8 and $9. Prices for the finals start at $13 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.
Five things to watch
The 45th annual CIF State Wrestling Championships offer no shortage of storylines for Central Section competitors. Here are five of the most compelling:
- No. 1: The quest of Clovis 126-pounder Justin Mejia to join Bakersfield’s Darrell Vasquez (1999-2002) as the only four-time champions in the history of one of the nation’s few single-division state tournaments.
- No. 2: Buchanan’s bid for a second straight team title. The Bears, ranked No. 2 nationally, enter as the only team with all 14 of their wrestlers, including top-seeded Matthew Olguin (113), Ethan Leake (120), Joel Romero (160), Anthony Montalvo (182) and Cade Belshay (220) and second-seeded Brett Villarreal (138). Buchanan is a threat to break the state scoring record of 276.5 set by Clovis in 2015.
- No. 3: Seth Nevills’ attempt to become only the fifth wrestler in California history to win state titles in his first three high school seasons. The Clovis junior won at 220 as a freshman and 285 as a sophomore, and is currently seeded No.2 and ranked No. 2 nationally at 285, carrying a 32-0 season and 122-0 career record into this weekend.
- No. 4: After producing nine champions last season, can the Central Section top that this year? In addition to those from Buchanan, five other section wrestlers are seeded first (Clovis’ Mejia and Nevills, Clovis North’s Chris Deloza at 132, Mission Oak’s Jaden Enriquez at 138 and Bakersfield’s Navonte Demison at 145), and five are seeded second (Dinuba’s Isaiah Perez at 126 and Jacob Wright at 145, Clovis’ Brandon Martino at 160 and Victor Vargas at 170, and Lemoore’s Gary Joint at 132).
- No. 5: A potential state final rematch looms at 145, in which Bakersfield’s top-seeded Demison and Dinuba’s No. 2 Wright are on opposite ends of the bracket after meeting last season in the 138-pound final, won by Demison with a pin in 1:00. Two other potential state final rematches could happen in this year’s semifinals, where reigning 106 champ Olguin of Buchanan is on the same side of the bracket as runner-up Nick Aguilar of Gilroy at 113, and Clovis’ reigning 120-pound champ, Mejia, could run into runner-up Jaden Abas of Rancho Bernardo at 126.