The high school wrestling season has reached its make-or-break month win and advance, or go home.
The latest step will be taken Friday and Saturday at the Sac-Joaquin Section divisional competitions, where the goal is to qualify for next week's Section Masters in Stockton.
The ultimate destination, of course, is the CIF State Championships on March 1-2 in Bakersfield. You can't get there, however, if you don't survive this weekend.
And coaches are still questioning the pluses and minuses of format changes for the divisionals, especially in Division 1. For the first time, wrestlers from the Modesto Metro and Central California conferences will not compete against each other at this stage.
The MMC has been shipped to Vintage of Napa (Division 1AA) while the CCC stays closer to home at Pitman High in Turlock (Division 1A). The North's clearcut advantage has forced officials for this season and next to split the two fields by competitive balance over geography.
The superiority of the North's D-1 teams virtually forced this change. But for the South, there is some give-and-take.
This year, MMC teams bus to Napa, a much longer trip than last year's divisional at Stagg of Stockton. Road and hotel costs will soar.
But only the top five finishers in each weight class advanced to the Masters from Stagg. This year, the top eight will qualify.
"We're trying to dig up pennies anywhere," said Mike Cantwell, coach of the MMC champion Gregori Jaguars. "There's no way we can leave Friday at 3 a.m. for weigh-ins. We have to get there the night before."
The payback, however, is a more open door to the Masters. And next year, the MMC won't have to travel far for the divisional.
"Competition-wise, the North is so much stronger. We had to separate. We get that. They had to do something," Cantwell said.
The changes will be seen firsthand at the D1A at Pitman. Forty-one state-ranked wrestlers (top 40) will be there from powerhouse teams. But, again, eight from each bracket will continue their respective seasons.
Chris Wolfley, the tournament director and Pitman coach, sees nothing wrong in the uptick in travel costs for many teams.
"The money is going somewhere. Why not to the kids? It's worth it," he said. "Fund-raising is what you have to do."
Next year, it will be the CCC's turn to hit the road on divisional week.
MUSTANGS February almost always belongs to Oakdale in wrestling. So far, there is nothing new.
The Mustangs started by earning their fifth straight Section Team Dual at Lincoln of Stockton. They dominated Cosumnes Oaks 64-4 and, in the final, Los Banos 52-13.
Oakdale then swept to titles in a school-record 11 of 14 weight classes at the Valley Oak League Championships. Next comes the D4 divisional Friday and Saturday at Los Banos, where the Mustangs are heavily favored to take home their seventh straight title.
NOTES Last week's most stunning news came from the MMC Championship, where Modesto's two-time state medalist Emilio Saavedra ranked first in the section at 132 missed weight. His season ended on the spot. Saavedra, a junior who has competed most of the season at 132 or 140, reportedly tried to cut to 128, where he saw a better road to state honors. The family banner now is carried by freshman lightweight Israel Saavedra. ... Gregori returned virtually its entire team this season, so it wasn't surprising that the Jags successfully defended their title. The team reaction, however, was different. "There was more pressure," Cantwell said. "There was a huge sigh of relief. It was by no means a foregone conclusion." ...
All that's known for sure is that Turlock crept past Golden Valley for the CCC title. The final score remains a mystery. Local media reported Turlock's 220 points and Golden Valley with 216 ½, but GV coach Chopper Mello upon closer inspection said the margin was only 2 ½ points. Regardless, the Bulldogs rallied from behind in the medal rounds behind their three weight-class titles and team depth.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.
Section Divisional Wrestling
Friday and Saturday
D-1A: At Pitman with CCC (8 qualify for Masters)
D-1AA: At Vintage of Napa with MMC(8 qualify for Masters)
D-4: At Los Banos with VOL and WAC(4 qualify for Masters)
D-5: At Lindhurst with TVL, SL and MLL(4 qualify for Masters)