Israel Saavedra stared helplessly at the rafters, his hands clutching his headgear, his back still glued to the mat.
His dream was dashed.
As Saavedra lay there, De La Salle senior Nathan Cervantez jumped into the arms of his coach. It was the win of his career.
Saavedra, the heavily-favored Modesto High School junior with two state titles already tucked away, was pinned in the second round by Cervantez. No one saw this coming Friday night during the 126-pound quarterfinals of the CIF State Wrestling Championships.
The crowd at Rabobank Arena unleashed a sound that wasn’t equaled during this long day. Saavedra, unbeaten this season and ranked first in the state and second in the nation, hoped to become only the second wrestler in state history to win four state championships.
It won’t happen now.
“Just move on from it. It can happen to everyone,” Saavedra said later. “Come back tomorrow and take the third.”
Four Stanislaus District wrestlers – Enochs’ McCoy Kent, Oakdale’s Nico Colunga and Abel Garcia, and Angel Velasquez of Pitman – advanced to today’s semifinals. It all paled, however, next to the shock treatment involving Saavedra.
The Modesto star had won 14 consecutive matches at Rabobank in his prep career. He appeared to be in cruise control, but Cervantez – the North Coast Section champion who’s ranked ninth in the state – showed energy from the start.
Storm clouds billowed during a scoreless first period. Saavedra usually takes charge and builds his lead, but not this time.
It happened fast, too fast, for Saavedra. Wrestlers call it “getting caught,” and suddenly Cervantez applied the pressure as Saavedra kicked his legs in vain.
“I was a little too high on top,” Saavedra said. “He caught me in a head-and-arm. I don’t think that’s happened to me since junior high.”
Saavedra trained with Kent the past three weeks. Fortunately for Kent, he survived his tense moment. The Enochs standout marched into his first semifinal berth by rallying from a 4-1 deficit to edge Evan Wick of San Marino 5-4 at 138.
Kent, who placed third at state a year ago, protected his lead in the third round.
“I’m happy about the win, but we’ve got a lot more to do tomorrow,” said Kent, who will be challenged by Khristian Olivas of Clovis in the semis.
Velasquez, 4-0 in the 132-pound bracket, also was extended by Greg Gaxiola of Buchanan. Rather than protect his slim lead in the final round, Velasquez attacked and eventually won 3-2.
“We’ve been working on that all year, about building a lead and not just hold on,” Pitman coach Adam Vasconcellos said. “He took 10 or 15 shots in that last round.”
Colunga, a two-time state medalist, broke through for his first semifinal appearance. Fittingly, it wasn’t easy. He overcame a near-fall and rallied to stop Adrian Marrufo of Dos Palos 7-4 in the 120 quarterfinals.
Garcia, Colunga’s sophomore teammate, hung in the 170 quarterfinals to edge Mark Penyacsek of Gilroy 3-2. He’ll be a major underdog today against reigning state champion Anthony Valencia of St. John Bosco.
Then again, Saavedra and the Valencia brothers were tabbed as the closest things to a mortal lock this weekend.
“Anyone can be beat here,” Oakdale coach Steve Strange said.
Velasquez, Saavedra’s former teammate, celebrated his victory on the adjacent mat seconds before the Modestan’s heartbreak.
But only 10 minutes after his loss, Saavedra worked out with Velasquez in the practice room. He wanted to make sure Velasquez would make weight today for the semis.
“Those two boys have known each other forever. They’ll do anything for each other,” Vasconcellos said. “There are fewer four-time California high school champions than four-time NCAA champions. People don’t realize how hard this is.”
They no doubt were reminded Friday night.