While football, basketball and baseball get much of the ink, very few sports have that lore that high school wrestling does.
It is – for no other words – the most underrated, misunderstood and mocked sport that high school athletes play.
For those who are consumed with the image of athletes “flying off the top rope” and putting chokeholds on entertainers, you are the very people who quickly have to understand that there is little entertainment about what real wrestling is.
Cutting weight and watching your teens and early 20’s glide by without Friday night pizza binges and other things that high school and college kids typically enjoy.
This past weekend, Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee was once again the venue for some real wrestling.
The Florida State Championships, featuring athletes who made a difference to thousands of fans who have adopted this sport and have run with it.
As head coach Vic Balmeceda and his South Dade Bucs once again registered another state championship – and 48 Miami-Dade and Broward athlete placed – this grand sport continued to get the positive exposure needed.
From fan websites to statewide media and internet viewers, this is now a sport that the rest of the country is watching. Florida has always had elite athletes that could easily rival anywhere in the nation. However, on the wrestling mat, it has taken over 50 years for the Sunshine State to truly be taken seriously.
Allen Held has been a wrestling coach for nearly four decades in South Florida. In that time, he has coached dozens of elite wrestlers and has witnessed a lot of change.
“Florida had always competed against Florida,” Held recalled. “When schools like Brandon started to travel nationally and others would follow, it gave this state a chance to be watched all over the country.”
While Florida never would be able to stand toe-to-toe with any region of the country that wrestling was the primary sport for decades, they did have the athletes that could be taught – and that is what is starting to happen.
Those who felt that one day the perfect storm would take place were right on target. More and more wrestlers from Florida are making a mark nationally. In Fargo, where the youngsters have been setting the table for years.
The very fact that Florida had any kind of wrestling in the past is all on the shoulders of transplants. Many who would come from wrestling hotbeds across the nation and many had serious backgrounds.
It was the only way to get the sport going in the south – where it had never been popular. Today, things are truly changing. It’s those pioneers of the sport that sparked things back in the mid 60’s and things are better than ever.
High school All-Americans for the first since the 1980’s, athletes are going to major college powers and doing very well.
Wrestling has come to the point where former national stars come to further their careers – as instructors and positive influences in the young wrestling community. People like Kenny Monday and Shawn Sheldon. Former college stars such as P.J. Reese and others.
The bar raised over the past two years in South Florida and into the Palm Beaches when Steve Mocco decided to come south and call this his home.
One of the most celebrated and recognized wrestlers of a generation. Mocco was a star at Iowa and Oklahoma State and was an Olympian.
In high school, he was one of the most dominant heavyweights. He won four New Jersey prep state titles and four prep national titles, two of which were at wrestling powerhouse Blair Academy.
Because he has influenced so many area athletes, Mocco made his way to the state tournament and like a proud father, sat on the edge of every match, coaching and teaching – in a way that many would never get at this level – or any other level.
“Babe Ruth of the sport,” longtime Nova head coach Ron Schultz said. “Having those kids learn from one of the best ever is amazing, and something that all of them should be thankful for.”
SOUTH DADE LEADS THE WAY – AGAIN
What more can you say about South Dade’s wrestling program that hasn’t been talked about over and over for the past two decades?
What Balmeceda and his program have done for wrestling locally – and throughout the state of Florida – is only second to the unreal streaks and winning that Brandon has done, and continues to do.
South Dade is a “family” that has run the sport for decades, and while other programs such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Gibbons, Southwest Miami and Southridge continue to do it the right way and win, they cannot do it at the level that the Bucs are getting it done at – not even close.
That family unit took on a completely new meaning over the past year – when Principal Javier Perez, who has always been a favorite of students and teachers alike, was nearly killed in a horrific accident.
Perez has been in the thoughts of everyone after a drunk driver struck him while he was at his son’s baseball game, resulting in him losing both of his legs.
Last weekend, Perez, in his wheelchair, surprised everyone by showing up for the state championships – his first real outing in 10 months – and watched his school win a fourth straight Class 3A crown.
This man who has been through things that many of us cannot comprehend – in just the past 10 months – felt so strongly about getting out and supporting the young men, coaching staff and the parents that have supported him every step of the way, he chose a great weekend to do it.
“When you have so many great people around you and supporting you like this family here and around the country, you cannot lose,” Perez said. “Class people. The kind that have your back all the way.”
That inspiration opened the doors for the Bucs to win six individual titles and cruise to the school’s 12th state crown. It also served as source of motivation for senior Elijah Varona, who gutted out injury after two heavyweights accidentally fell on his right ankle during a Friday morning warmups – right before the first round began.
Most people would have thrown in the towel and not competed, but what Varona did, with Perez on hand, was show how much heart he had and wanted to go out as a two-time state champion. He did not disappoint. Varona hobbled his way to the title with applause from all – including Perez.
In addition to Varona’s memorable win, other South Dade champions included freshman Bretli Reyna, Alyis Mursuli, Brevin Balmeceda, unbeaten Chei Hill and heavyweight Kyron Taylor, who defended his state championship with a thrilling 5-4 win over three-time state champion Dylan Meeks of Orlando Dr. Phillips.
Southwest’s 170-pounder Angel Delcueto was the only non-South Dade wrestler to win a title in Miami-Dade when he defeated Lake Brantley’s Nate Ferkovich 8-4 to win the 170-pound class.
As South Dade did what they have done for a long time, other programs continued to grab the spotlight as well.
St. Thomas Aquinas finished third among 3A schools as head coach Rob Wimberley also had three individual champions, including junior All-America Grant Aronoff, who won for the second year.
Many who have watched Aranoff compete, and see the level of competition he has competes, could easily put him on top as one of the school’s elite wrestlers, but one Broward County’s most accomplished of all time.
Aronoff and Josiah Gittman became the latest two-time state champions for the Raiders. Senior Bryce Marcus has come close the past two years, but finished off a tremendous career with a convincing win at 152.
Broward County finished with five overall champions – including Somerset Academy’s eighth-grader Lucas Willis, who captured his title in Class 1A at 120 pounds.
A runner-up a year ago, Cardinal Gibbons senior 195-pounder Christopher Williams made sure that his final chance would be a memorable one – and it was. He capped off a perfect 42-0 season win the Chiefs’ lone state title.
THE GARAGE BOYZ LEAD THE WAY
Over the years, some of the top wrestlers in South Florida have been getting better in a unique location.
What Hector Varona has done for his son and his friends is to convert his garage into a workout room – and many have taken advantage of the opportunity to compete against high-level wrestlers.
During the tournament, all 10 Garage Boyz advance to the second day of the tournament, and five more made it to the semifinals.
Leading the way were state champions Elijah Varona and Alyis Mursuli, but also include Anthony Valverde (South Broward), Marcus Abreu (Coral Park) and South Dade’s Mika Fundora.
WHO PLACED AT STATE
Grant Aranoff (St. Thomas, 3A, 138)
Breven Balmeceda (South Dade, 3A, 145)
Angle Delcueto (Southwest Miami, 3A, 170)
Josiah Gittman (St. Thomas, 3A, 195)
Chei Hill (South Dade, 3A, 220)
Bryce Marcus (St. Thomas, 3A, 152)
Alyis Mursuli (South Dade, 3A, 132)
Bretli Reyna (South Dade, 3A, 106)
Kyron Taylor (South Dade, 3A, 285)
Elijah Varona (South Dade, 3A, 113)
Chris Williams (Cardinal Gibbons, 1A, 195)
Lucas Willis (Somerset, 1A, 120)
Osvani Ley (Cardinal Gibbons, 1A, 160)
Michael Lopouchanski (Cardinal Gibbons, 1A, 182)
Michael Mireles (Southwest Miami, 3A, 220)
Todd Perry (South Dade, 3A, 152)
Franco Valdes (Southwest Miami, 3A, 138)
Marcus Abreu (Coral Park, 3A, 126)
Ryan Boncamper (Killian, 3A, 113)
Jaafari Stephens (Coral Gables, 3A, 285)
Matthew Toribio (Cypress Bay, 3A, 220)
Alex Urquiza (Southwest Miami, 3A, 132)
Anthony Valverde (South Broward, 2A, 106)
Nick Benton (Somerset, 1A, 170)
Brandon Bodden (Miami Jackson, 1A, 285)
Adonis Concepcion (Cardinal Gibbons, 1A, 152)
Amadeaus Concepcion (Cardinal Gibbons, 1A, 145)
Mikaelle Fundora (South Dade, 3A, 160)
Raul Gierbolini (Somerset, 1A, 182)
Trayvonne Jackson (Killian, 3A, 285)
Antony Kinsey (Southridge, 3A, 152)
Stephon Moreno (St. Thomas, 3A, 120)
Danny Perez (Sunset, 2A, 152)
Santiago Portilla (Cypress Bay, 3A, 106)
Luis Riso (Southridge, 3A, 170)
Cole Schwartzberg (Mater Lakes, 1A, 220)
Hector Candelaria (Somerset, 1A, 126)
Corry Harvey, (South Dade, 3A, 182)
Julian Hernandez (Southwest Miami, 3A, 113)
Guervens Jean (Miami High, 3A, 160)
Alberto Mendoza (Southridge, 3A, 138_)
Christian Morales (South Dade, 3A, 126)
Juan Vernaza (Somerset, 1A, 160)
Adam Fox (Cardinal Gibbons, 1A, 285)
Tyler Orta-Khawly (South Dade 3A, 120)
Anthony Machado (Westminster Christian, 1A, 170)
Richard Mayol (Ronald Reagan, 3A, 170)
Vinny Sessa (St. Thomas, 3A, 132)
Jordan Taylor (Coral Springs Charter, 1A, 145)
HARRISON STEPPING ASIDE
It won’t be the same at Stranahan during wresting season. Longtime head coach Thomas Harrison is stepping down after two decades with the Dragons, and he changed the culture of the sport, bringing back some of those 1970’s successes.
Harrison will become athletic director – which is something that he had always thought about doing.
HELD WILL ENTER WRESTLING HOF
Veteran wrestling coach Allen Held, who is currently the head coach at Cypress Bay, has been named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame – Florida Chapter.
Held has coached at Hallandale and his alma mater, South Broward, producing a number of state placers and champions.
Held and six others, including longtime Belen Jesuit head coach Fidel Albelo, will be inducted on Saturday, Aug. 12 in Lake Buena Vista.