The lights in the Desert Ridge wrestling room were dimmed, the circle was lined with wrestlers meditating with their eyes closed as coach Travis Jackson gave a powerful message.
He touched on their long-standing relationships established in middle school, dealing with expectations, wrestling for the team and not just the individual, scenarios they’ll face at this weekend’s sectionals and how they need to be willing to overcome the adversity, how the season is only practice until February and the importance of just qualifying for the state tournament.
Give yourself a chance, and all the hard work will pay off.
“We have a good mix of seniors who want to finish their careers strong and younger guys who can keep this run going,” said Jackson, who coached most of the wrestlers at junior high before taking over program three seasons ago. “We’ve been building this program back up, and the next two weeks are going to show us how far we’ve come.”
Then he left them with one last message: go home, and mentally visualize success.
See yourself getting that fireman’s carry to start the match, foresee yourself beating that opponent for the first time after losing the three previous matchups, envision yourself on top of the podium holding that first-place plaque and bracket.
The Jaguars will have 14 wrestlers heading into the Division I, Section I tournament at Red Mountain with high expectations. The lineup is missing two wrestlers, including former state placer Chris Medeiors at 220, but the substitutes have filled in well throughout the year.
So, they all headed home with different scenarios and visions to go over in their mind’s eye.
The hopes are to overcome last year’s state tournament that saw so many Desert Ridge wrestlers come up short by one point and/or lose in the blood round where one more win would have meant a spot on the awards podium.
Here are a few of their stories:
Antonio Esteban (145, 29-12)
Esteban failed to qualify for state last year and left the sectional tournament feeling more tired than ever. All wrestlers feel wiped out after a long tournament, but this was different.
He had no energy. Lethargic doesn’t even begin to tell the story, so Esteban went to the doctor’s office. Blood work and a MRI led to a week’s stay in the children’s hospital.
Esteban was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a form of cancer caused by a chromosome mutation that occurs spontaneously. Doctors aren’t sure what causes the mutation.
“It made us all take a step back and pause,” he said. “You hear cancer and you think the worst. It scared everyone.”
He knows how lucky he is to only need to take a chemo pill rather than have his body ravaged by chemicals and radiation.
“So many people have to spend so much time going through treatment that they are at the hospital constantly,” he said. “When I was there I was next to an infant that was going through so much. I am lucky to be able to get back on the mat and compete.”
It has given him a different perspective and one that won’t let him give in to any scenario he faces while wrestling.
“I was given a second chance, really,” he said. “There is nothing I face out here that is too much to overcome or bounce back from. I am never going to give up.”
Hunter Wold (195, 32-12)
Wold entered the program two seasons ago as a junior high state champion. It was a clear sign he can be a dominant wrestler and he knew how to win the big matches.
It’s never materialized into his high school career – yet.
The junior sustained injuries during his freshman and sophomore seasons that kept him from even competing in sectionals.
That’s why when he brought up the fact that Monday marked one year since hurting his knee last year, the coaching staff moaned and groaned with the idea of Wold jinxing his healthy 2017-18 season.
“He’s missed out and could have scored us some points,” Jackson said. “We just have to get him through this week.”
Wold is ready to see what he can do in the state’s two most important weekends after all this time.
“It’s been frustrating because I should have been out there,” he said. “I’d have that much more experience, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I’m excited to finally see what I can do.”
Alex Wood (126, 13-4)
Wood was the only Jaguar to get through a tough state weekend a year ago, placing third as a sophomore to become the 19th state placer in program history.
While he’s had a difficult regular season based on being healthy, he knows the next two weeks are all that matter.
“This is the time of the year you have to be at your best,” said Wood, who made the state semifinals last year at 120. “It’s going to be a tough tournament. I’ve finished third and it’s time to take that next step. No one at Desert Ridge has won a state championship.”
That’s clear when you look at the walls in the Desert Ridge wrestling room. All the state placers have a wood board hanging with their name and placement. Nineteen wrestlers, 24 total medals including six state runners-up, in black against the red stain.
Right next to it hangs an empty 20-inch-by-28-inch picture frame under the State Champs category.
“I look at it every day I come in here,” Wood said. “It’s there as a reminder of what my goal has been for all of my career. We talk about who is going to be the first one and I want it to be me.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to email@example.com.