The pride of Central Section athletics can be found emphatically at Selma High.
“It’s an honor representing our town – our small town,” Selma sophomore Gracie Figueroa said after winning one of the team’s three individual titles as the Bears roared atop the CIF State Girls Wrestling Championships on Saturday night at Visalia Convention Center.
Figueroa (116 pounds) and fellow sophomore Alleida Martinez (101) each repeated state crowns, Jerzie Estrada (131) – a freshman from Colorado – also scored gold, and Selma received a sixth-place finish from freshman Marijah Morales (106) while compiling 103 points.
The Bears trailed Hillcrest-Riverside (97.5) by 3.5 points entering the finals, but Hillcrest of the Southern Section advanced no wrestlers to that level.
And that meant the team crown was secure after Martinez (18-0) pinned Bear Creek-Stockton’s McKenzie Bacich in the third period after having established a 6-2 lead over the senior, who entered the match with a 37-0 record.
Martinez resumed wrestling only a month ago after having appendix surgery in the fall.
“I was confident,” Martinez said, “but it was also scary because I missed half the season. I had to work harder to get where I was.”
It took Selma, with an enrollment of 1,650, but six years to ascend to the state’s mountaintop.
Diego Quintana started the program in 2011 – which coincided with the first state tournament, when the Bears’ Biri Mendoza won gold at 132.
Coach Andy Munoz took the baton from Quintana a year later, and the race was on to catch longtime Southern California powers.
“It took a lot of hard work to be competitive as a team because we were behind,” said Munoz, a 1991 Washington High graduate and a former state silver medalist.
Selma’s roster more than doubled this season, to 26.
“The program is recruiting itself,” Munoz said. “I ask girls why they’re coming out, and they say because of its success and that they want to be part of a winning team.”
The Central Section had additional medalists with Tulare freshman Jessica Sanchez (third, 111), Highland senior Courtney Bojorquez (fourth, 143), Sierra Pacific junior Katelyn Blanchard (fifth, 189) and Lemoore senior Esperanza Cadena (sixth, 121).
A large contingent of Selma fans wearing can’t-miss orange and black attire occupied 50-yard-line seats in the downtown venue. And they were richly rewarded – with gold, actually.
Further, that came against opponents with gaudy résumés. In addition to Bacich against Martinez, West Covina senior Jennifer Lopez arrived at 49-0 against Figueroa and Kennedy-La Palma senior Miyuki Pugrad carried a 17-1 record against Estrada.
Figueroa (34-0) took down Lopez quickly in the first period and remained in control for an 8-0 win.
“I worked hard for this – very, very hard,” Figueroa said. “I’ll win two more, hopefully. And I feel very happy our team pulled it off. It’s a great feeling.”
But, as opposed to Martinez and Figueroa, drama followed Estrada.
She was reversed by Pugrad for a 4-4 tie late in the third. Then, Estrada drew the Bears’ fans to their feet by standing and maneuvering into position to rip Pugrad’s hands off her but was forced out of bounds with a second remaining in the period.
Unfazed, Estrada tore after Pugrad and took her down 22 seconds into the sudden-death, one-minute overtime.
“I was tired,” Estrada said soon after, still gasping for air. “But all I could think about was winning and that I had worked too hard not to get the takedown now. And, I came all the way from Colorado – literally – to win a state championship.”
There was no disguising that motive: Estrada and her family moved from Ponderosa, Colo., to Selma because she was tired of wrestling boys. There’s no high school wrestling for girls in Colorado.
“Girls are a lot easier to wrestle than boys,” Estrada said. “I was also familiar with Gracie and Alleida from nationals. They were the toughest girls, so I wanted to be on their team and train with the best.”
The best, indeed.
The best in California.
“I’m really happy,” Munoz said. “And especially because we were able compete with everybody else in this amount of time. I’m very happy to bring a state title to the Central Valley after six years.”