The high school wrestling season has reached prime time, when the pressure increases, the palms grow sweaty and the lights shine the brightest.
The Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championship convenes Friday and Saturday at the spacious Stockton Arena, a venue reserved for only the top qualifiers from each Section divisional.
The top seven in each bracket will advance to the State Championship next week at Bakersfield, holy ground for every teenaged athlete wearing a singlet.
"Our Masters is always a tough tournament. Our section has gotten tough," Turlock coach Mike Contreras said. "I think we're among the top three or four best in the state."
Indeed, section prestige has leaped forward. Only four in each bracket from the Sac-Joaquin qualified for state during the 1990s, but that number nearly has doubled.
Four wrestlers from the Stanislaus District will return as 2009 Masters champions: Turlock juniors Brandon Egleston (125, won last year at 103) and Fabian Garcia (119), and Oakdale juniors Shane Tate (130, won last year at 125) and Charlie Gilstrap (215).
Ranked first in the section are Garcia, Tate, Gilstrap and Central Catholic junior David Ferry (135).
Contreras believed 2009 was a down year for the district. Merced's Chris Urquizo, the state champion at 152 (he has graduated), was the only district product to reach the final. But to get there, one must excel at the Section Masters.
Action at the arena begins at 9 a.m. each day, with Saturday's finals set to start at 3:30. The goal for every wrestler on Friday is to earn a berth in the semifinals, which assures a trip to Bakersfield. Hard work awaits those, however, who must slog through the consolation bracket Saturday.
The Bee will offer a thumbnail view of each of the 14 Masters weight classes in Friday's edition. For a look at the brackets, visit http://cifsjs.org.
For the Pride, the day was filled with meaning. It had served as an usher but never the groom all season. Pitman had recorded top five finishes at Modesto Junior College and the MidCals at Gilroy. In the CCCs, Pitman barely lost to Buhach Colony for the dual-meet title, then missed the tournament title by an agonizing 1½ points behind winner Los Banos. All the frustration made last weekend extra sweet.
"I'll give up the CCC title any title for a blue banner (a section title)," Pitman coach Adam Vasconcellos said.
Oakdale dominated, as expected, with six champions during the Section Division IV last weekend at East Union of Manteca. Meanwhile, Central Catholic edged Calaveras for team honors at Division V at Hilmar. The Raiders were led by winners Abel Caliz (112), Steven Widmer (125), Ferry and Ben Martinez (152). Those four wins carried CC over Calaveras in the finals.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.