By Nick Kindred
Welcome to the 11th Annual Battle for the Belt hosted by Temecula Valley High School! We are excited for another great tournament that is sure to be action-packed and loaded with talented wrestlers from all over the country. For the first time in several years, the Battle for the Belt is happy to welcome back two-time defending California state team champion Buchanan High School. This is Buchanan’s first appearance at the Battle for the Belt since head coach Troy Tirapelle has taken the helm for the Bears. During his tenure, Tirapelle has catapulted Buchanan from perennial California contender to a legitimate threat on the national stage. Coming into the tournament, Buchanan boasts a #1 ranking in the state of California and a #3 ranking nationally. On top of that, they are coming off a team championship at last weekend’s highly touted Doc Buchanan Invitational. If the Bears wrestle to their potential, Coach Tirapelle should be wrapping the Coach’s Title Belt around his waist on Saturday night.
Hoping to knock off Buchanan is nationally ranked and defending Southern Section Masters team champion St. John Bosco. Bosco comes in ranked second in the California state team rankings. Though they have experienced a bit of the injury bug of late, if they are able to piece together their full arsenal, they could make things difficult on Buchanan.
Other teams who could make a significant impact on the team race include cross-town rivals Frontier High School and Bakersfield High School. Both return a slew of talented wrestlers who have state-level experience. Sac Joaquin section power Del Oro returns to this year’s Battle for the Belt after a two year hiatus. They hope to improve on their third place finish from 2016. To do so, they may have to fend off the likes of four-time defending North Coast Section team champion De La Salle. The Spartans had some strong individual performances at last weekend’s Doc B, and they will look to parlay that success into the Battle for the Belt.
Some Southern Section schools who could challenge for team hardware include Esperanza, Temecula Valley, Calvary Chapel, and San Marino. Don’t forget to keep an eye on Dinuba High School who always seems to perform well in the warm southern California sun. Throw in the out-of-state flavor of perennial Arizona state team contenders Cibola as well as multiple-time Nevada state champion Green Valley and the jockeying for team trophies could get interesting come Saturday night.
With an idea of how the team race may take shape, let’s take a look at the contenders in each of the individual weight classes.
Weight-by-Weight Preview (Nick Kindred)
In a weight class that has been historically dominated by freshmen, this year does not appear to be an exception. The likely front-runner is freshman Jack Gioffre of Buchanan, who is coming off a second place finish at the nationally recognized Doc Buchanan Invitational. Hoping to challenge Gioffre is another freshman standout in Ryan Luna of Saint Francis. Both could have their hands full with Chandler’s Zachary Espalin. Espalin is a defending Arizona state champion, a returning B4B medalist, and he was 4th at the Freestyle Junior Nationals in Fargo. A couple of seniors at this weight class who will hope to show these underclassmen a thing or two are Devin Garcia of James Logan and George Aguilar of Carlsbad. Others who will be in contention for medals include Ethan Perryman (Temecula Valley), Fernando Barreto (Rowland), Justin Rodriguez (Palm Desert), Adrian Ledezma (Eleanor Roosevelt), Allan Hendricks (Santiago), and Bobby Cuevas (De La Salle). Should Buchanan enter their backup (Raymond Lopez), don’t be surprised if he makes a run of his own.
The clear leader here is Buchanan’s Carlos Negrete. As a freshman, Negrete was a California state finalist. Having won the Doc B a week ago, Negrete is likely to carry the top ranking in the state the next time the rankings are posted. Should St. John Bosco’s Timothy Levine make his way into the lineup, he could make a run at the finals. Levine placed 4th at the Walsh Ironman in December, which many view as the toughest in-season high school wrestling tournament in the USA. Levine’s presence in the lineup could play a significant role in the team race. Another viable contender for the Title Belt at this weight class is Steele Dias of Green Valley. Dias was a Nevada state champion in 2018, and he placed 5th at the Doc B last weekend. North Coast Section runner-up Romeo McNeal of James Logan, returning state qualifier Troy Tadros of Santiago, and Arizona state placer Juan Sierra of Cibola should also be in medal contention. Don’t rule out freshman standouts at this weight, including Del Oro’s Damion Elliot, San Marino’s Koa Ruiz, and Calvary Chapel’s Joaquin Arroyo.
With a stronghold on the lower weights, Buchanan once again boasts the favorite at 120 pounds in Maximo Renteria. As a freshman, Renteria snagged a California state title in convincing fashion. Now a sophomore, Renteria hopes to improve on his 2nd place showing at the Doc B by taking home his first Title Belt. Hoping to avenge what (at the time) was considered an upset loss to Renteria at the California State Championships will be St. John Bosco’s Antonio Lorenzo. Lorenzo is already a three-time California state placer and a returning B4B champion. Don’t overlook Arizona state runner-up Zack Kvalve of Corona Del Sol, who was third at last year’s Battle for the Belt in an extremely loaded weight class. Paloma Valley’s Savion Dixon returned to competition for the first time this season at last week’s Doc B, where he tallied some impressive victories en route to the medal stand. Others who will vie for medal contention include Nevada state champion Will Zernich of Green Valley, two-time LA Section Champion Roque Roman of Birmingham, a pair of two-time state qualifiers in Richard Rojo of Rowland and Lorenzo Arreola of Dinuba, along with a trio of returning state qualifiers in Noah Ozuna of Frontier, Michael Aguirre of Oceanside, and Ethan Gould of Esperanza.
Leading the way at 126 is California state finalist Aaron Nagao of Esperanza. Just a junior, Nagao is already a two-time state placer and a former B4B champion. Having finished 7th at last year’s B4B, redemption will likely be the order of the day for Nagao. Looking to prevent Nagao from capturing a second career Title Belt are a trio of returning California state placers that includes Frontier’s Cole Reyes, Bishop Amat’s Christian Nunez, and Buchanan’s Hunter Leake. Reyes is a two-time returning California state placer and three-time state qualifier. In addition to placing 7th at state last season, Nunez is a former B4B finalist and a three-time state qualifier out of the Southern Section. Leake was a state placer last season at 106 pounds, and he appears to be handling the jump to 126 better than many have in the past. All of these wrestlers may have their hands full with Rowland’s Alex Ramirez. As a freshman, Ramirez placed third in the Southern Section before a concussion kept him from competing at the California State Championships the following week. Another sophomore standout who was unable to compete in last year’s postseason is Isaac Salas of St. John Bosco. Salas has the skill set to medal at the B4B. Should he do so, it could have considerable implications on the team race. Don’t rule out De La Salle’s Riley Hilt and Del Oro’s Evan Ivaldi. Both wrestlers made deep runs at the California State Championships last March before being eliminated just shy of placing. Returning California state qualifiers Ryan Spangler of Sultana, Angel Rosales of Bakersfield, and Cole Acosta of Paloma Valley along with Triston Curtis of Shadow Ridge and Benjamin Alanis of Valiant College Prep, both of whom were third in their respective states last season, make this one of the deepest weight classes in the field.
This weight class could pose some interesting matchups, but much of that is contingent on the health of two-time defending California state and B4B champion Cleveland Belton of St. John Bosco. In previous years, Belton has looked virtually unbeatable, but after a DNP (Did Not Place) at the Walsh Ironman and a DNW (Did Not Wrestle) at last week’s Doc B, Belton’s status is presently unclear. Should he compete, however, it could lead to a matchup with De La Salle’s Kyle Parco. Though Parco has never placed at the state meet, his talent is undeniable. He’s a two-time defending North Coast Champion, and he ran the table at last week’s Doc Buchanan Invitational, taking home the coveted Cowboy Hat. In those finals a week ago, Parco defeated returning state medalist Marcos Polanco of Bishop Amat by a decisive score of 9-4. If Belton is unable to compete, look for a rematch between Parco and Polanco in Saturday night’s finals. After a 4th place finish at the Doc B, Logan Gioffre of Buchanan has made it clear that he too is a realistic contender to take home the Belt. Defending Sac Joaquin Section champion and Doc B placewinner Brenden Johnson of Del Oro and returning state qualifier and B4B medalist Cade Lucio of Bakersfield will both be in the hunt. Others to watch include two-time returning state qualifier Garrett Fletcher of Frontier and Arizona state finalist Chris Kelly of Chandler.
The 2019 Battle for the Belt will mark the season debut for two-time defending California state champion Jesse Vasquez. A recent transfer to Excelsior Charter, Vasquez is also a defending Battle for the Belt champion. Given his credentials, Vasquez is the clear favorite, but don’t underestimate the conditioning factor, which may play a role, as the other competitors in the field will be in mid-season form. Most notable among these competitors is Luciano Arroyo of Calvary Chapel. Arroyo is a three-time state placer and three-time Southern Section finalist. Others who hope to make a run at the finals include returning California state medalist Elijah Blake of Del Oro, defending Arizona state champion Bryce Nickel of Valiant College Prep, and returning state qualifier Andrew Bloemhof of Bakersfield. Buchanan’s entry could be of some significance. If Tyler Deen is able to make the cut to 138, he is also a legitimate contender to make the finals. Deen was a state placer two years ago and just missed placing again last March. Other competitors with notable achievements include three-time state qualifier Ryan Morphis of Frontier, two-time defending North Coast Section champion Dwayne Guerrero of De La Salle, along with returning state qualifiers Dominic Leon of Golden Valley and Justin Valdoria of St. John Bosco.
A collision course among California wrestling family dynasties appears to be on the menu at 145. St. John Bosco’s Cael Valencia enters the tournament boasting a 4th place finish at the Walsh Ironman and a 3rd place finish at the Doc B last week. As a freshman last year, Valencia was a Battle for the Belt medalist and a state qualifier out of the Southern Section. Both of Valencia’s older brothers (Anthony and Zahid) were three-time California state champions, and both were Battle for the Belt champions during their high school careers. To deliver on the same feat, he will likely have to go through San Marino’s Luka Wick. Just a sophomore, Wick finished 3rd at last year’s Battle for the Belt, and he was a state placer at the California State Championships in March. Both of Wick’s older brothers were California state champions and both were two-time Battle for the Belt champions. It will be interesting to see if either can keep the family tradition alive by capturing a Title Belt on Saturday night. Those who will hope to derail their bids for the Title Belt are returning California state placer Noah Cortez of Dinuba and Joseph Martin of Buchanan. Though Martin is only a freshman, he boasts some impressive victories this year, as well as an appearance on the podium at the Doc B. Also keep an eye on Ramona’s Jeff Ramsthaler. Ramsthaler is a two-time returning state qualifier and he went very deep into the brackets at state last season before being eliminated just before placing. Others to watch at this weight are Nevada state placer Kai Ward of McQueen, Arizona state placer Gabriel Castaneda, two-time state qualifier Jose Landin of Frontier, defending LA Section champion Aaron Galef of Birmingham, and returning state qualifiers Daniel Chirinos of ML King and Logan Sumulong of De La Salle.
Once again the question of health will determine the favorite at 152. If St. John Bosco’s Sonny Santiago is ready to go, then he is the favorite to take home the Title Belt. As a sophomore last year, Santiago finished 4th at the Battle for the Belt and followed that up with a 6th place finish at state. Since having to default out of the Walsh Ironman due to injury, Santiago has not returned to wrestling competition. If he is ready to go, the man waiting for him could be returning state placer JT Stinson of East Nicolaus. This will be Stinson’s first real competition of the year after having to complete a 30 day sit out period. Given the limited mat time for the aforementioned wrestlers, perhaps keep an eye on Nevada state champion Justus Scott of Green Valley. Scott was 7th at the Doc B a week ago and he was a medalist at last year’s Battle for the Belt. Jonathan Orozco of Oak Hills could also be in contention for a spot in the finals. Another B4B medalist in the field could be San Marino’s Beau Perez, who is always dangerous. Other wrestlers to watch include a pair of two-time state qualifiers in Adrian Gonzalez of Bakersfield and Armando Murrillo of Rowland, and returning state qualifier Benny Banduenga of Righetti. Also keep an eye on 2017 state qualifier Xavier Silva of Steele Canyon and the ever-dangerous Beau Perez of San Marino, who was a B4B medalist a year ago.
A rematch of last week’s Doc B finals may be on tap on Saturday night at the Battle for the Belt. The credentials of Buchanan’s Matt Olguin and Del Oro’s Noah Blake make it difficult to imagine that anyone else will meet in the finals. Both are three-time California state placers. Olguin was a state champion as a freshman and has never finished lower than 3rd at the state meet. When they met last week, Blake was considered the favorite as Olguin was coming up from 138 pounds a year ago. That will not be the case if they meet again in the B4B finals as Olguin now holds a 10-2 major decision victory over Blake. Both should be sure not to look past returning state placer Max Aguirre of Frontier and 2017 state placer Troy Mantanona of Palm Desert. Also, De La Salle’s Ankhaa Enkhmandakh is a defending North Coast Section champion, and he boasts a head-to-head victory over Aguirre at the Doc B. Others to watch include San Diego Section runner-up Jayden Smith of Brawley, returning state qualifier and Doc B medalist Louis Rojas of St. John Bosco, defending Nevada state champion Desmond Bowers of Green Valley, and Nevada state finalist Noah Gallardo of Shadow Ridge.
In a field that includes four returning state placers, two returning Battle for the Belt finalists, a former Battle for the Belt champion, and three Doc B placers, the talent level is not in question at 170 pounds. Yet with all those credentials, no clear favorite jumps off the page. Monache’s Marc Cardwell is a two-time Battle for the Belt medalist. He finished second at the B4B last year and followed that performance with a 4th at the California State Championships. He did all of this at the 170 pound weight class. Last week, Cardwell placed 5th at the Doc B. Dinuba’s Daniel Long also finished 2nd at last year’s Battle for the Belt. He would go on to place 6th at the California State Championships. He did all this at 160 pounds. Temecula Valley’s Ryan Cosio did not compete at last year’s Battle for the Belt, but he did place 4th at the California State Championships at 182 pounds. As a sophomore in 2017, Cosio ran the table at the B4B, taking home the Title Belt at 182 pounds and following that up with a Southern Section championship later that season. At first glance, Cardwell might appear to have the edge but returning state qualifier and Doc B placer Jared Priest of Bakersfield split matches with Cardwell last week. Toss in Buchanan’s Rocco Contino, who was a Doc B medalist, along with Colorado state placer Zachery Vannaman of Pine Creek and San Diego Section runner-up David Lipscomb of Steele Canyon and you have a very talented and wide-open field.
If Frontier’s Trent Tracy is able to bounce back after having to withdraw from the Doc B, then he is the man to beat at 182. Tracy is a returning California state champion. Hoping to get a matchup with Tracy is Nathan Haas of St. John Bosco. Haas has his own list of impressive accomplishments including an appearance on the podium at the Walsh Ironman in December and a run to the Cadet Freestyle National finals in Fargo last summer. If Tracy is unable to compete, look at Haas to take on the role of favorite. Returning California state medalist and two-time defending LA Section champion Jonovan Smith of Birmingham may have something to say about that. Also looking to compete for a finals appearance could be Joseph Curtis of La Costa Canyon. Curtis is a returning state qualifier, and he finished third at the highly touted Reno Tournament of Champions (RTOC) in December. Others who will be in competition for medals include returning state qualifiers Jordan Annis of Bakersfield and Andrew Kohl of Castro Valley, along with Marc Williams of Shadow Ridge, who was 3rd at the Nevada state meet. Also keep an eye on Buchanan’s JD Peralta, as well as Carsten Rawls of Saint Francis.
Returning state qualifier Jadon Martin of Buchanan leads the way at 195 pounds. Narrowly missing a medal at last year’s state meet, Martin has demonstrated a steady consistency that was capped by a medal at the Doc B last week. Looking to challenge Martin for the Title Belt is fellow state qualifier Brandon Leon of Roosevelt. Leon is coming off an impressive championship run at the Riverside County Championships this past weekend, where he earned Outstanding Wrestler honors by pinning all of his opponents in the first period. If returning state qualifier Jaiden Patterson of St. John Bosco could find his way into the finals, it could give a major boost to Bosco in the team race. Others who will be in contention for medals include returning state qualifier Shane Hansen of Oceanside, Arizona state placers Marion Neblina of Cibola and Elijah Sobas of Chandler, Trevor Tinker of Bonita, who was a state qualifier in Missouri a year ago, as well as Adam Lowe of Del Oro, Ty Shepherd of Frontier, and Aurek Boutte of Palm Desert.
A pair of returning state placers lead the way at 220 pounds. Guillermo Escobedo of Bishop Amat was 6th in the state of California last year at 182 pounds, while Justin Darter of Bakersfield was 8th at 220 pounds. Both are returning Battle for the Belt medalists, as is returning state qualifier Logan Melendez of Temecula Valley. Chandler’s Nathaniel Deasey, who was a Cadet Freestyle National Champion and double All-American in Fargo last summer, could also challenge at this weight class. Others to watch include Nevada state placer Julio Duron of Basic Academy along with Christian Settecase of Santiago, Jacob Gaskin of Walnut, Angel Anguiano of Capistrano Valley, and Hamde Awad of Canyon Springs.
A pair of returning state qualifiers lead a wide open field in the heavyweight division. Randy Arriaga of Capistrano Valley and Josiah Hill of Bakersfield both qualified for the state meet but were unable to win a match at Rabobank Arena in March. Arriaga has won each of the tournaments he has attended this season, and Hill was a medalist at the Doc B last week. Though Josh Avila of Rowland did not qualify for state last season, he has a solid list of accomplishments this season and he could very well contend for the Title Belt. Others who could surprise the field include Jacob Smith of Etiwanda, Chris Torres of Oak Hills, Ethan Perez of Sultana, William Von Goeben of Walnut, and Taven Avila of Monache.
TEAM LIST, SCHEDULE, AND COACHES INFORMATION