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Wrestlers ready to rumble at state

20140207 Wrestling Alyssa-Salinas featureSoft-spoken and weighing in at less than 100 pounds, it’s hard to picture Leslie Oliva as a wrestler, let alone a regional champ.

The sophomore at Lincoln-Juarez High School had never been involved in sports before signing up for wrestling as a freshman, thinking it would be like boxing.

“I thought it was going to be less work, but now I’m in shape,” Oliva said. “It’s good. I’m healthier. I’m giving it all I’ve got.”

Oliva is one of four regional champs in the area, and the 95-pounder is preparing for the state tournament next weekend in Garland. She credits team captain Danae Sanchez for helping motivate her and get her into shape.

Sanchez, herself a regional champ in the 148-pound weight class, ended up wrestling because of a mistake in her schedule her freshmen year. Her original plan had been to play volleyball, soccer and track. But naturally competitive, Sanchez quickly picked up the sport. She also has three older brothers, one of whom was once a wrestler for Palmview.

“Since it was a mistake, maybe it was meant for me or something like that,” Sanchez said.

But it hasn’t been easy. When Sanchez lost her first match, her coach told her it was OK because she had three more years to compete and make it to state.

“And it actually got to me. I said, ‘No, I want to make it my freshman year.’ I always go by the saying, ‘Reach for the moon because even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,’” Sanchez said.

And she did make it to state as an alternate. She made it to state again her sophomore year after taking second in the regional competition, but was eliminated. Last year, Sanchez headed to state determined to make it to the top three. She came in second.

This year as a senior, she plans to go undefeated, become a state champ and leave behind a legacy at Juarez-Lincoln. But, she admits, every year it gets more difficult as more girls take to the sport.

Plus, she said, girls from the Valley are built differently from girls in other parts of the state. They’re taller, skinnier and more muscular, Sanchez said.

“It’s said that guys are tougher; they make an excuse,” she said. “You think it’s tougher, but for girls, imagine, it’s also tough.

“You have to work hard for it. You don’t just make it.”

Sanchez turns into a different person on the mat. She walks in hunched over with self-described penguin feet, but once she shakes hands, “it’s like, ‘Wow, where did she come from?’”

She remembers being matched against a powerlifter with a six-pack her freshman year.

“Everybody expected her to beat me, and I beat her,” Sanchez said. “Wrestling isn’t all about strength. It’s about technique.”

Sanchez already has been accepted to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where she’d like to start a wrestling club and study criminal justice, but she’s considering her options. She has an eye on wrestling programs out of state.

In the blood

Jaqueline Gonzalez, regional champ in the 165-pound wrestling category from Veterans Memorial High School, had no choice when it came to competing. Her cousin, also a wrestler, as well as her parents and aunts and uncles pushed her into it.

It’s not an easy sport to get involved in because people in the Valley mainly concentrate on sports like volleyball, football and soccer, Gonzalez said.

When Gonzalez’s friends first found out about wrestling, they didn’t get it. When they tried it, they said it was ugly because competitors are grappling with one another, touching each other’s bodies.

“People have this biased opinion when it comes to wrestling,” she said. “They think it’s for people who like people of the same sex or something like that or they think it’s disgusting because you’re touching other people.

“But how many people can say they’ve been to regionals in Austin or San Antonio? How many people can say they’ve been to state?”

Plus, she said, it takes a lot of confidence to wear a singlet, the wrestling uniform that forms to the body.

At first she was driven to get farther than her cousin.

“My freshmen year, I’d practice with him. Well, he’d beat me up. It wasn’t really wrestling,” she joked.

Now she practices with her little brother, who’s also taking up the sport. She said it’s an advantage because he’s stronger, helping her prepare for the girls at the state competition with “six-packs and thunder thighs.”

“Mexicans are kind of short,” she whispered conspiratorially. “We’re just trying to not be intimidated by them. If you automatically start thinking they’re bigger than me, they’re stronger than me, they must know better than me, once you get in that mentality, you’re done for.”

At the regional competition, Gonzalez went up against a girl who took out her previous opponents in less than 15 seconds. The girl’s mom told her she had a black belt in karate. Gonzalez got nervous, but soon remembered her own success.

“I have everything going for me,” she said. “If I’m ever going to lose, I’m going to lose in that championship state match.”

Instead, Gonzalez watches her opponents wrestle, picking up on their moves and figuring out the best way to combat them. It’s a fast-moving sport she said, and wrestlers need to have good conditioning.

She’s had to stay focused this year after a successful run her junior year. At one point, Gonzalez said her coach had to sit her down and told her she’s becoming uncoachable. Her family, too, sat her down and said, “You can get second or less or you could get first.

“It’s all or nothing.”

Since then, Gonzalez said she’s worked harder to improve. She wants to win the state title not only for herself, but for everyone who has helped her get to where she is.

After graduation, Gonzalez has plans to go to Texas A&M University and study chemistry in the first step toward becoming a pediatrician. Still, her dad hasn’t lost hope, sliding packets about wrestling programs under her door.

She may still change her mind.

“It hasn’t hit me yet that this is my senior year,” Gonzalez said. “I still believe in my mind; my body still believes that I can come back and compete next year. I really don’t want to give up this sport.”

In her sister’s footsteps

In her second year of wrestling, junior at La Joya High School Daisy Ramirez is the regional champ of the 165-pound category. It’s an improvement over her first year when she came in third.

“I feel more confident now that I got first,” Ramirez said. “Most of my competition is kind of gone already, but I’m not letting myself get too high.”

Ramirez’s older sister, too, was a wrestler and her little sister is picking up the sport as well. Ramirez said she liked that it was something different. In elementary school, she loved football, and she thrives on the competition.

To prepare for state, Ramirez said she’s been wrestling the boys. The skinny ones are fast and the bigger guys are strong and heavy, she said, giving her an advantage when she faces different sized girls at the state level.

“I just hope to place in state,” she said.

Ramirez’s coach Roy Rosas said all around, La Joya High came in fifth out of 41 teams at the regional competition.

“Sometimes I tell my girls we don’t get the respect the boys get,” Rosas said. “It think our girls are starting to catch up.”

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