Each new season brings a new hope.
The Santa Ynez Pirates boys wrestling team is no exception.
Head coach Raul Omar Sandoval and his team are brimming with optimism as the 2018-19 season begins.
“Last year we didn’t have a full lineup. This year we have more kids and they’re doing pretty well. They’re looking good,” said Sandoval as his squad saw its first action of the year in a six-team mini-tournament at Santa Maria High School last week. “But this is a young team. We only have a couple of juniors and seniors and we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores.”
It helps to have junior co-captain Richie Sandoval back.
Richie Sandoval, the coach’s son, is ranked No. 11 in the state in the 126-pound weight class.
“I’ve beaten the (state’s) No. 5 and have gone back and forth in the top eight,” said Richie Sandoval after winning his two matches with quick pins of his Nipomo and Morro Bay opponents. “I think the season is looking pretty good.”
Richie Sandoval began wrestling as an 8-year-old but it took some time before his talent blossomed.
“I lost for two years in a row. I just could not get a win,” said Sandoval, who also wrestles for his father’s Solvang-based Central Coast Wrestling Club. “Finally, I got one and I said to myself ‘how can I get another one, how can I get another one’ and I just kept on going from there.”
Ben Nielsen is the other co-captain — one of the few seniors on the squad.
The 120-pound wrestler is fresh off the Pirates’ cross country season.
“The coach likes having cross country runners on the team. There are similarities between the two — both are team sports where you compete as an individual,” said Nielsen. “Cross country is all mental — you’re pushing yourself uphill in 100 degree heat to do the best you can and help the team win. That takes a lot of mental toughness and so does wrestling.”
Like Sandoval, Nielsen also began wrestling at a young age.
“Back in middle school I was little. I was short and didn’t weigh very much. People would pick on me. But in wrestling, size doesn’t matter. You compete against wrestlers in your own weight class and that’s what drew me to it. I knew I could be tough and go out and earn respect. This sport teaches kids about their self worth and integrity.
“It’s like the coach always says, ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.'”
Nielsen isn’t the only multi-sport athlete on this Pirates team.
Seniors Kevin Gonzalez (145 pounds) and Jacob Moran (182) and sophomore Mason Hammill (170) recently rejoined the team after wrapping up a successful football season.
“We had to delay the start of our wrestling training by about a month-and-a-half but we went to the CIF playoffs, so that was worth it,” said Moran, the honorary third captain for the night. “I started wrestling to stay in shape for the football season. At first, I hated it but as soon as I started learning some of the moves I liked it more and more. Now it’s a lot of fun.”
“The two sports really help each other equally,” said Hammill, who began freestyle wrestling while in junior high. “Wrestling helps with endurance and football helps with strength. We have a good group of kids. Everyone is working hard and everyone is helping out our teammates as best we can. The cool thing is that this is a team sport but you also compete as an individual. In the end, it’s just you and an opponent.”
Also hitting the mats for the season’s first competition were Armando Contreras (106), Dylan Vargas (113), Adrian Paque (132), Alex Perez (138), Marcos Salguero (160) and Jose Buenrostro (220).
The team was missing three regulars, all out while recuperating from injuries — Chris Scaduto (138), Jose Rodriguez (heavyweight) and Emilio Soto (152).
Soto was on hand to cheer on his teammates — “I’m recuperating from a broken hand,” said Soto — and was at his familiar spot on the sidelines. Soto can be seen taking pictures at many of the Pirates’ sporting events as one of the school’s official yearbook photographers.
This group holds a team huddle before each wrestler hits the mat.
“Every time before one of our guys goes out we get together, huddle up and go ‘one-two-three and shout the player’s name,” said Richie Sandoval. “It shows our support. It gives everyone the belief that they can do anything — that we’re all there supporting them and cheering them on.
“We have a lot of young athletes. I’m excited about this year and next. If we train as hard as we can, this team is going to be good, it’s going to be strong. Wrestling is not a short journey — it’s a very long and very hard season.”
“These kids have been working very hard in the gym,” said Coach Sandoval. “They’re young but are learning quickly. After a preseason match like tonight’s, we know a lot more about the things we need to work on — being in a real match is a lot different than working out against your teammates in the gym. I would like to see better results for them but I think we’re getting there. We’ve just got to stay positive and keep improving — keep pushing forward because there’s no point in looking back.
"In this sport, even when you win you still get beat up. But we’re building nicely and in a couple years, I think we’ll be a powerhouse.”
The Pirates were back on the mat Wednesday against Dos Pueblos in their Channel League opener. The Pirates are scheduled to compete at the Rumble at the Rock in Morro Bay this weekend.