Troy Tirapelle knows that his stomach will tighten into a knot when he leads Buchanan High School into the CIF State Wrestling Championships in Bakersfield.
The Bears will try to defend their CIF title at the championships on March 3-4.
“To be honest, we get to the state meet, and I’m sick,” Tirapelle said recently. “It’s because I see the kids who busted their tails and did everything you told them to do, and I want to go out there and win for them.”
Now in his sixth year as the Bears’ head coach, Tirapelle loses about 15 pounds during the season. That’s what nervous energy and stress will do to you, especially as the spotlight shines on your program.
Under Tirapelle’s guidance, Buchanan has become a powerhouse in the Valley and state while also gaining national attention. Already this season, the Bears have won the Doc Buchanan Invitational, the Zinkin Classic, the Valley’s Yosemite Divisionals and the Clash national dual meet wrestling tournament in Minnesota.
Winning at those events is a testament to the work ethic and talent of his athletes but also involves luck, Tirapelle said: “We haven’t had kids get sick or injured at the wrong time. All those things wrapped into one are why we’ve been successful, at least to date.”
Top performers this year for Buchanan include Matt Olguin, Ethan Leake, Brett Villarreal, Anthony Montalvo and Cade Belshay, who all won championships in their weight classes at the Yosemite Divisionals on Feb. 18.
Competing this year as the defending state champion took some adjustment. “At first, we didn’t cope that well, to be honest,” Tirapelle said. “I think some of our guys thought, ‘Whoa, we won, and we’re supposed to win again.’ ”
But, they needed to realize that opponents would go all out to beat them and that preparation is key to handling that kind of pressure, Tirapelle said.
That means fine-tuning skills at practice — not just going through the motions — and running extra sprints to build up endurance. When a match begins, Tirapelle said, he and his coaches can tell whether their wrestler has outworked an opponent.
“I tell our guys, ‘We can see it right away. You’re not good actors. We can see it on your face,’ ” he said.
Meanwhile, the name “Tirapelle” is synonymous with wrestling in the Clovis Unified School District. Troy’s father, Steve, is the longtime head coach at Clovis High School, and a brother, Adam, is an assistant there. (Another brother, Alex, is the wrestling coach at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Steve and Adam Tirapelle helped guide Clovis High to a second-place finish behind Buchanan at last year’s state championships. Consequently, the regular season match between the two schools in the Tri-River Athletic Conference was highly anticipated this year.
In fact, in January, several thousand people watched as host Buchanan beat Clovis by two points.
People are curious how those competitions affect relationships between the Tirapelles. They ask whether it’s a “bloodbath” at family dinners, Tirapelle said, chuckling. The simple answer is “No.”
“We’re a blood-is-thicker-than-water family,” he said. “My dad knows what we’ve got, and I know what he’s got. It always comes down to whose kids are going to perform that day.”
Immediately after the Clovis match, Tirapelle said that Buchanan underperformed and that the score was closer than it should have been. Two weeks later, he acknowledged that stress could have played a role in his team’s performance.
“I wrestled in that event — and it was not nearly as big as it is now — and I remember getting nervous and not wrestling my best,” said Tirapelle, who competed for Clovis in high school. “So when you remember that these are 15-, 16- and 17-year-old kids, I can understand why there were nerves.”
After high school, Tirapelle continued his wrestling career at the University of Illinois and then returned to the Fresno-Clovis area. He coached at Central High School for two years before taking over at Buchanan.
Going up against his father and brother was “weird” at first, Tirapelle said: “We’re competitive, and I like winning at anything I do. We can be eating dinner, and I try to finish faster.”
But the family shares the goals of seeing wrestlers grow as student-athletes and seeing the sport advance in the Valley. For those reasons, Tirapelle is enthusiastic about Fresno State restarting its wrestling program this fall.
A Bulldog team will give local athletes an option of continuing their wrestling careers close to family and friends, he said. And, many of those athletes will return to teach and coach in their hometowns after graduating from Fresno State.
“They will take wrestling back to Fowler, Dinuba, Madera and Clovis, and when they give back to the sport, it makes all the high schools better,” Tirapelle said.
People ask him whether he worries about that phenomenon producing extra competition for Buchanan. Tirapelle tells them: “No, that’s what makes us better. You have to keep getting better to stay on top. It helps everyone.”