It was a breezy morning in the Oakland Hills last Saturday, as the sunrise beamed across the campus of Skyline High School. But it was not just any Saturday morning—it was the beginning of a new chapter for many Oakland Athletic League (OAL) wrestlers who were looking for a chance to become a state champion.
But before they can compete in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) State Championships in Bakersfield in March, they must overcome the challenge of the OAL Wrestling Finals, because only the best of the best will represent the league at the competition they simply call “State.” A sense of nervousness was in the air, as each wrestler seemed tense during their preparation: They were all well aware that they must either win today, or go home.
Oakland Technical High School, Castlemont High School, Skyline High School, and Oakland High School were all represented, fielding about 25 wrestlers. A total of 12 matches took place, although three became forfeits. The feeling of each match could best be described as “ruthless aggression,” as each competitor did whatever needed to be done to pin their opponent’s shoulders to that mat.
Many of the wrestlers used simple, but effective, maneuvers such as the “single leg takedown.” This is when a competitor is able to hook a leg of their opponent, causing them to lose balance and driving them to the mat. Another was the “double leg takedown.” Similar to tackling in football or rugby, it involves “shooting” between your opponent’s center with your knee between their legs, hooking both legs with your arms, and driving your opponent to the ground.
“My favorite wrestling move is the double leg, because it’s just like tackling in football and it’s fun just running people over,” said Jahzeel Doeparker, a senior at Skyline.
Many wrestlers performed a basic “spin-around” maneuver to counter these takedowns. This occurs when an opponent attempts to “shoot” for a leg. Tthe wrestler being targeted will counter by sprawling his or her legs out to prevent them from being hooked. They will then trap their opponent underneath them, and quickly spin behind them to attempt their own maneuver.
If a wrestler is able to successfully perform a takedown, they are awarded points by the referee. This matters because not every wrestling match will have a “pin”—when you are able to hold your opponent’s shoulders down on the mat for a second or two. If both shoulder blades are on the mat, the referee will slam his hand on the mat, signaling the pin. But since not every match is decided by a pin, a wrestler wants to stay on top by racking up points. Points are awarded for performing successful takedowns, counters, moving an opponent’s shoulders close enough to the mat without actually scoring the pin, or through penalties, if a wrestler performs an illegal maneuver such as biting, striking, or using illegal holds such as the “Full Nelson.”
At the finals, coaches and teammates shouted instructions from the sidelines, motivating wrestlers to keep fighting through their fatigue. Skyline wrestling coach James Odon said he tries to train his athletes in the mental aspect of wrestling so they can perform under pressure. The important thing, he said, is “trying to get them to relax in a pressure environment. Getting them to push through adversity, and try to show them that when it’s getting real bad it can always get worse—but it’s your mental willingness to keep pushing forward and to keep going forward.”
Odon said he is a tough trainer on the physical side, as well. “How I run my practices, I’ll be honest, it’s like the Navy Seals,” he said. “Not there for a day or two … you’re off the team. It’s not about the days you feel like doing it, because that’s not when champions train. The champions train on the days they don’t feel like it.”
Conditioning became a factor in many of the matches. A wrestler who is out of shape has a constant struggle to catch air, and can fatigue and show sloppy technique. Although some went the distance of the full six-minute time limit, some wrestlers—despite showing better technique—fell victims to their opponents because of lack of conditioning.
As the dust settled in the Skyline gymnasium and all 12 matches came to a fateful conclusion, only 13 wrestlers remained. Ultimately, Skyline took first place in the league, beating out both Castlemont and Oakland High School. Some of the finalists who will be moving on to the state championships include Doeparker, Edwin Rodriguez, Thomas Gray and Emmanuel Hibbert.
“I always try to do my best in anything that I do. They told me that this was going to get me better for football, so I took it seriously and did my best. Hard work pays off,” said Skyline junior Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said he was inspired to start wrestling this past year due to his close friendship with Doeparker. Both Rodriguez and Doeparker are members of Skyline’s football team.
Gray, a former football player and junior at Oakland Technical High School, described how he came to love wrestling. “I went to football practice and this one coach walked up to me and said, ‘I want you to come wrestle for me.” And I am like, ‘I don’t know how to wrestle.” And he said ‘Alright, we are going to teach you,” he recalled. Now, Gray said, he is serious about the sport. “After high school, I want to go too a four-year university and I want to be one of the greatest wrestlers alive,” said Gray.
“I’m doing this for a lifestyle, because once you do wrestling … everything else in life is easier,” said Hibbert, a junior at Skyline.
After that came the awards ceremony. For those who were not handed medals, their journey had come to an end. For those headed to State, their journey has just begun.