OTHELLO — Champions are not born, they are made. They are forged in the dragon’s breath, in rooms where temperatures loom near triple digits.
Champions are forged in the place where nobody is watching, a place where only the brotherhood knows the pain. A place where redundancy is key when tired muscles tell the spirit and the mind the mountain is too tall, the task too great. Champions are built from the ground up, one drop of sweat at a time, drip, drip, drip.
But sometimes the clay needs a Master Potter to help shape what’s already there, to help to develop a mind not in tune with the spirit, someone to help take it over the top when close ain’t close enough. That last little bit of motivation helps when, if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.
Like his father before him, and the coach who mentored him, Rudy Ochoa II basks in the spirit of Othello past every day when he walks down the corridor where the Wall of Fame leads way to the room where the champions board chronicles past gladiators.
“I was on the same ‘06 team with Freddie Flores (145) and Philip Ontiveros (140). We all made the finals. They won state championships and I didn’t,” said Ochoa II, as if he were still mat-side, fresh from the battle. “I want to teach my guys so they never have to know that pain.”
Journey to the top
He coaches them all, but the goal this year was to get his senior Bernie Garza Jr. (182) to the top of the podium in the final tournament of the year, on the state’s grandest stage at the Tacoma Dome. Garza’s skill set was always worthy, but his confidence lacked. His style of wrestling was to react rather than bring the fight to the circle. Huskies tradition includes bringing back past champions, past gladiators, those who know how to get past the pain, and it was working with former state champion TJ Martinez (2017) that instilled a champion’s heart in a guy that’s been wrestling since Little Huskies.
“TJ and I have the same storyline,” Garza Jr. said. “We’ve wrestled all our lives. We’d try our best every year, but it just didn’t work out. Then our senior year we both went all out and took first. He was pretty good, but he worked a lot of stuff out his senior year, and it inspired me to do the same.”
A 3-2 loss to Max Wheeler (White River) at the Gut Check Tournament fueled the fire and by the time he hit the Dome there was no extinguishing Bernie Garza Jr.’s wildfire run to the top shelf on the podium in the 182-pound classification at the 2A state championships.
They say it’s easier to get to the mountaintop than it is to stay there, but two-time 285-pound 2A state champion Isaiah Perez (40-3) will only smile like a two-time state champion can. Getting beat at the prestigious Tri-State Tournament only fanned the flames for a guy who won his first state championship in an epic 1-0 battle with previously unbeaten, reigning state champion Cy Hicks of Tumwater, who went into the match as the top-ranked heavyweight in all classifications.
They say if you want to be the champ, you have to knock the champion out. And even though this year was different and was he was the guy, Perez knew all the gunslingers were on his trail, hoping to be the guy that beats the guy, like he did a season ago. It didn’t happen, not even close.
The Othello junior, whose wrestling weight is right around 245 pounds, won all five matches by fall, didn’t go past the first period until the title match where he won by pin in 2:51.
“I’m just as strong as everybody else, I just don’t weight as much,” he said in near whisper with a sense of humility that says more about the man than his triumphs. “I think my success is because my technique is better.”
In a room where former state champions are training future state champions, where Hall of Fame coaches are working with a staff that’s marched into battle with Huskies past, coached state champions at different schools, sometimes the biggest battle is to get out of your own room.
It sure was the case for the 138-pounders Arturo Solorio and Jovani Espindola. This year was a little different with a 32-man bracket because Mother Nature wiped out regionals. They both probably would have qualified anyway, but you have to wonder if some of their biggest battles came in the room with only the brotherhood watching.
Solorio ended up finishing third at 138, having worked his way through one of the toughest brackets in the tournament. He went last year as an alternate, but the extra work with Freddie Flores and Phillip Ontiveros helped pave his way to the podium for the Huskies sophomore.
“At first I had to get used to how big (the Dome) was. But we’d been to some pretty big tournaments like Tri-State and Gut Check, so I think that helped,” Solorio said. “All that work with Freddie and Phillip built up my confidence and I felt good, no matter who I was wrestling.”
Not only did Espindola have to grind his way out of the room, there was the matter of convincing his father Jesus he was ready to get back on the horse after breaking his arm at the regional tournament the year before.
In fact, the fracture was so severe he wasn’t even sure he’d be ready to contribute when the season started. It took a little work convincing the family, but Espindola said his effort at the state tournament was a way to pay tribute to la familia.
“Wrestling gave me self confidence. It’s not like I’m cocky, I just believe in what I’ve been taught,” he said. “This year I left a legacy for my family, because they were really, really against wrestling when I first started. Now, my little brother is involved now. My little sister wants to join. My cousins from different schools (have the bug). So my effort at state was for them.”
Roberto Ramirez (126) came from a small program in Idaho and the biggest arena he’d ever seen prior was Holt Arena on the Idaho State University campus. He adjusted well to the work ethic, the discipline, the structure and the tradition that is Othello wrestling.
“I felt pretty confident because I’d put in the work. (The Tacoma Dome) was the biggest building I’d ever set foot in to wrestle,” said Ramirez, who finished fourth and was seconds away from qualifying for the finals. “What I like about wrestling is that it keeps me busy. It keeps me on the right path. Coming to Othello is the best decision I could have ever made.”
The Roylance boys finished fourth and fifth, respectively. Easton (160), who has only been wrestling three years, took full advantage of the time he spent working with cousins Joseph and Daniel Walker. His style mirrors the Walker brothers and it took him all the way to the podium his senior season,
“I knew this was my last tournament. I was thinking this is my time to show how much I’ve improved from last year (where I got put out early),” Easton said. “This was my best tournament. I’d prepared with a lot of great tournaments on the way and I walked away feeling pretty good.”
The Huskies Brotherhood
Said Elijah, who was fifth at 220, “I was an alternate last year, so other than the practice the day before, I’d never wrestled in the Dome,” he said. “The nerves were there, but I felt like I was prepared. I wrestled really well my first three matches.”
As is Othello tradition, on Wednesday the Huskies the visited the junior high school to share their journey to the Dome with the young guys coming up.
“I remember being in junior high and Ruben (Martinez) brought the guys by and we got to meet them and hear their stories,” Ochoa II said. “That was a big turning point for me. So that’s what we’re doing. When we’re done here we’re going to drop by and talk with the young guys.”
Rodney is a sports writer for Columbia Basin Media Group and writes for the Sun Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org