The visitor walks up three narrow flights of stairs and finally arrives at the cozy headquarters of the Modesto High wrestling program.
The 35-member team sweats through the early moments of a weekday workout in a virtual loft – painted-over windows, heating and air-conditioning vents hanging from the low ceiling, dim lighting and mats covering the floor.
It is the home of the Stanislaus District’s best team.
“Other schools have their gyms. This is our hide-away,” senior heavyweight Caesar Arreola said. “It’s the atmosphere of this room that says we can do this together.”
Modesto, ranked ninth in California, is closing in on a Modesto Metro Conference title. The Panthers slipped by defending champion Gregori 37-31 last week and, on Tuesday night in front of a large crowd at Beyer, used six wins via pin to stop the Patriots 48-27.
Louie Saucedo (106), Adam Velasquez (113), Israel Saavedra (120), Emilio Saavedra (145) Adam Darwish (195) and Arreola all won by fall to keep Modesto unbeaten at 4-0 in the MMC. The Panthers sit two wins from an unbeaten league season while the Sac-Joaquin Section Team Duals on Feb. 8 at Stockton will provide more tests.
So far, so good for the Panthers.
“I’m overwhelmed about how a lot of these kids have transitioned over the last three years,” said coach Angel Saavedra, the father of Emilio and Israel who served as an assistant coach for two years before he took charge. “I’m happy that they’re starting to shine.”
The Saavedra boys – Israel the sophomore who won a state title as a freshman, and Emilio the senior and two-time state medalist – form the team’s anchor. Israel is ranked first in the state at 120 while Emilio is second at 132.
Modesto was further strengthened this season, however, by the arrival of another brother tandem – junior Angel Velasquez and freshman Adam Velasquez. The freshman is ranked first in the section at 113 while Angel is ranked fifth in the state at 126.
What makes the Panthers especially potent, however, is the development of wrestlers like Darwish, Arreola, Saucedo and Andrew Williams. There’s more to their bite than just their double 1-2 punch.
“We feel like more like a team,” Darwish said. “We push each other as hard as we can.”
Angel Saavedra thinks this is only the foundation of what’s to come. He expects the Panthers to improve even after the graduation of Emilio and others.
“Up here, we’re all by ourselves,” he said as he scanned his team’s old-school home. “These are the kids I’m talking about. They put in a lot of work over the summer. I don’t get too much into the rankings. Our goals are to win state championships. Everything else will fall into place.”
The Brown featured Modesto’s Angel Velasquez, another former Bee WOW, who dropped a 4-3 decision to Michael Knoblauch of Clovis West in the 126-pound finals. Knoblauch, ranked third in the state, was named the meet’s outstanding wrestler in the lower weights. Gregori’s Cadence Mitchell rallied to a third-place final at 132 while teammate Nathan Ah You placed fourth at 170. Fifth-place medals were earned by McCoy Kent of Enochs (145), Justin Barnes of Bret Harte (160), Frankie Trent of Oakdale (170) and Dominic Freesha of Escalon (220).
Army freshman Trevor Smith, who earned sixth and third-place medals at the State Meet before his 2013 graduation from Ripon High, is 10-13 so far for the Black Knights. The 6-4 Smith, who worked at 197 as a senior, has given up many pounds as a heavyweight at West Point.