It was a moment Justin Mejia had been anticipating, relishing, pointing toward, for more than half his life.
But when that moment finally arrived, when the referee raised Mejia’s arm over his head signifying the Clovis High senior as a four-time CIF State wrestling champion, the feeling wasn’t one of joy or exhilaration.
“Relief,” Mejia said after squeaking past Selma’s Robert Garcia IV 3-2 in the 126-pound final Saturday night at Rabobank Arena. “For sure, relief.”
The pressure of becoming a four-time state champion – something Mejia started talking about in the fourth grade – started to wear on the 17-year-old in recent weeks. The mass of expectations had become burdensome, even for his chiseled shoulders.
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Family tried to ease some of that stress by mentally preparing Mejia in case he lost. Assuring him that nothing that happens on the wrestling mat would define him as a person.
“It’s a pressure than I can’t even understand,” Tom Mejia said while watching his son fidget in his seat before Saturday morning’s semifinal. “I can’t imagine, at 17, having that weight on you.”
The last couple weeks it’s really been weighing on him, melting him down.
Clovis High assistant wrestling coach Adam Tirapelle
Coaches reminded Mejia of the quality of opponents he would be facing in the 126-pound division, a stacked weight class that “people will be buzzing about for years to come,” according to the official program.
Garcia is a four-time state medalist and semifinal opponent Jaden Abas (Gerry Abas’ son) gave Mejia a tussle in last year’s 120-pound final. His coaches told Mejia that if the other guy won, to proudly shake his hand. Because he earned it for beating a three-time state champ.
“The last couple weeks it’s really been weighing on him, melting him down,” Clovis assistant coach Adam Tirapelle said.
“We did our best to keep him calm, but it’s hard. Because when you feel the pressure and he starts becoming a different kid and not wrestling to his ability, that’s going to be the biggest regret. You lose and you know deep down that if you wrestle like you normally do, you probably would’ve won.”
Organizers of the CIF State Wrestling Championships did their best to ratchet up the drama, pushing the 126-pound final to the last match of the evening.
When Mejia’s name was announced, many cheers could be heard from the crowd of 6,897 but also a cascade of boos.
Clearly, a lot of wrestling fans wanted to see the Illinois-bound favorite from big bad Clovis, which already had 160-pounder Brandon Martino and heavyweight Seth Nevills crowned earlier in the evening, get knocked off.
“When Justin wrestles he brings the boo birds with him because everybody wants to see him go down,” Tom Mejia said.
Mejia already had beaten Garcia twice this season, including a narrow 3-2 decision in the Central Section finals. Saturday’s state final was the same sort of tense, tactical affair. Mejia held a 2-0 edge late in the third period, wrestling conservatively by his own admission, when Garcia suddenly flung him for a two-point takedown.
The crowd roared, sensing a potential upset or overtime, but Mejia decisively broke away for an escape and a 3-2 lead. All that was left was to ride out the final 25 seconds.
“It was a great finish for him,” Clovis coach Steve Tirapelle said. “He’s going to remember this the rest of his life. It was an incredible ending.”
It was a very tough match and the crowd didn’t want him to pull it off, but when you’re good you find a way to win.
Tom Mejia, Justin’s father
After the referee raised Mejia’s arm in victory, making him only the second four-time champion in the state tournament’s 44-year history, he ran around the mat with a huge smile and both arms aloft before leaping into Steve Tirapelle’s arms.
What a relief.
“He’s always been a pressure kid,” Adam Tirapelle said. “He loves it. He eats it up. But this was different.”
“It’s done,” Mejia said. “Wasn’t the best effort I’d say, but I knew I was going to have to gut it out.”
Watching from the front row, cheering and applauding, was Bakersfield product Darrell Vasquez, who in 2002 became the first four-time state champ.
Fifteen years later, there is a second. (And based on how Nevills dominated the heavyweight division with a flurry of first-round pins, better make way for a third next March.)
“I always knew someone else was going to do it, and I welcome him to the club,” said Vasquez, who met Mejia during the recent Central Section Masters. “I know what it takes, and I know he’s put his heart and soul into doing this.”
Mejia had about 50 family members in attendance, including both sets of grandparents. (Saturday also happened to be the birthday of his great grandfather, Joe Nunez, who died last year.) They flocked in from across California but especially from Mejia’s hometown of Reedley.
None of them, though, watched with more pride than Mejia’s older brother Thomas, who came home one day from junior high saying he wanted to try wrestling – and that there was a little kids’ program that would be perfect for the hyper Justin.
Thomas and Justin grew up huge MMA fans and were constantly sparring each other in the living room. Since Thomas was 8 years older he would fight from his knees to make things more fair. But he didn’t exactly go easy.
“He’s probably the biggest factor in my toughness,” Justin Mejia said. “He beat me up from the time I was 5 years old until now.”
He’s the toughest kid we’ve had. He’s like a little wolverine.
Clovis High wrestling coach Steve Tirapelle
The plan was never to create a champion wrestler who went 167-1 during his high school career. Thomas Mejia just wanted a little brother who was tougher than everyone else’s.
“Justin was just a crazy little dude, and I vibed off that,” Thomas Mejia said. “That’s when we became really close.”
Despite their age difference, the brothers are like best friends. Justin stays over at Thomas’ house just about every weekend. No one more than Thomas understood what Justin has been going through recently.
Becoming a four-time state champion was something Mejia never shied away from. He bear-hugged the pressure, even though the enormity nearly swallowed him. Still, he emerged with arms raised. Like always.
What’s next, now that such a monumental goal has been reached?
Said Mejia: “I plan to be Olympic champion and a couple time world champion.”