It's been a good year for a certain Central Coast youth wrestling club.
The All-American Elite group, which trains in Santa Maria but attracts wrestlers from all over the area, won the team title at last weekend's California USA Wrestling Kids Folkstyle Tournament.
The event was held over three days at Selland Arena in Fresno.
Two of the club's wrestlers were crowned state champions: Saul Paz, Jr. in the 71-pound weight class and Nisa Rogers at 110 pounds.
Three other wrestlers finished as runners-up, including Austria Holland (101 pounds), Marques Zamudio (56 pounds) and Cristian Aguirre (161-plus pounds).
Nine other All-American Elite wrestlers placed at the state tournament: Keira Nartatez (4th place), Anabelle Aguirre (4th), Jacob Correa (fifth), Sophia Toscano (fifth), Jamar Jeffries (fifth), Ezhno Pintor (seventh), Joseph Toscano (eighth), Dominic Day (eighth) and Andy Lazaro (eighth).
The group typically trains at an industrial park off College Drive in the heart of Santa Maria and is led by Anthony Dakuras, a former Santa Maria High wrestler.
With encouragement from his grandmother, Anna Ellenbrook, Dakuras focused on working with the youth community in his hometown after graduating from Fresno State.
"I received a bachelor's degree in Physical education and I double-majored in Sociology," Dakuras said. "So I understand where we're at in Santa Maria, I understand we're a lower-income area. So I wanted to give these kids an opportunity at something I didn't have."
Dakuras dedicated his team's state championship to Ellenbrook, who died after a battle with cancer in 2018.
"When I came back after graduating from Fresno State, I didn't know what I wanted to do," Dakuras said. "My grandma told me to start a youth program, to start small and work my way up. Right around that time she got diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I took care of her for three years and then she passed away last year.
"I wanted to dedicate this to her. She helped me get started, she helped me find a location and she really encouraged me when things weren't going well, when we didn't have many kids or we would go to tournaments and not do well. She encouraged me to keep going."
Dakuras' wrestling club has come a long way.
All-American Elite consistently places wrestlers on championship podiums and competes for team titles and bolsters a roster of dozens of youngsters who come all the way from Paso Robles and Lompoc.
Paz, the 71-pound champion, and Rogers, the 101-pound titlist last weekend, are Orcutt Academy Charter School students.
Paz won his weight class with a 4-0 decision over Irvine's Hunter Gordon in the final. That's Paz's fifth first-place finish in the last few months.
"I just like to wrestle and beat people," Paz said. "It's fun. I'll wrestle anywhere."
Paz said he found wrestling after growing tired with other sports, like football and soccer.
"I started when I was 5. My uncle used to wrestle and I just ended up trying," Paz said. "My dad helped get me into it because I was looking for a new sport. I just tried it. I liked it a lot at first and I still do."
Paz says of his coach, Dakuras: "He can be fun and he can also be strict," Paz said. "I just like him."
Rogers, 11, has been wrestling for six years.
"My favorite part is just hanging out with my friends and wrestling," Rogers said. "It can be really hard. Like, we had a really intense practice then the next day we had another really intense practice. It's hard to keep going."
Rogers said it was cool to win her individual weight class, but was more proud to see her team win a championship.
"That means that we're all showing how our coach has taught us how to win as a team," Rogers said. "I think it represents how good the whole team is. Even if people didn't win first, they still help the team by placing and doing their best."
Rogers hopes to wrestle at Pioneer Valley in high school and then for the women's team at the University of Oregon in college.
"Their girls team is just awesome," Rogers said.
The All-American Elite team will be competing throughout the year in both folkstyle and freestyle tournaments. They were competing in another tournament this weekend at Buchanan High School in Clovis.