A handful, or so, years back I was assigned to interview a duo of State-bound wrestlers from Riverside King High School. They were headed for Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, which is the ultimate goal for any kid that hits the mat.

I got each kid alone, questions in hand, ready to listen, jot down notes and, eventually, to go write it up. The Wolves had a 106-pounder, plus a 285-pound heavyweight.

“You guys must be best friends,” I asked the lightweight. “You spend so much time together. Driving to all these matches. Training together. Waiting around to wrestle at the meets.”

Off the record, he told me, “I hate him.”

Huh? What? I thought he was kidding.

“Every day at lunch time, the wrestlers eat together,” he said, “and (the heavyweight) gets a couple of cheese burgers and his strawberry shake.”

Get ready. Here it comes.

The lightweight kid said, “I have my bottle of water. My lettuce and strawberries.”

It’s the world of high school wrestling, folks. Those kids always have to make weight. While the heavyweight was trying to keep up his strength, the lightweight was trying to stay under 106.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

There are stories coming from all angles at any wrestling tournament. Beaumont High, a progressive place to be for an athlete (any sport), hosted last week’s CIF-Northern Division wrestling championships. The top five from 14 weight classes qualified for this week’s CIF-Masters.

Those fifth-place showdowns can loom larger than any first-place showdown.

Yes, first place always attracts the attention, first place medals and trophies – not to mention the spotlight in the media.

Fifth place, though, can be a bigger, more brutal fight. It’s a bitter showdown. No holds barred. Unlike losing a first or third place bout, fifth place keeps your season alive.

Ask Banning’s Brandon Ceja, a sophomore transfer from Riverside La Sierra. In a do-or-die showdown at Brea Olinda High last week, he beat a senior, 4-2, earning that special place in the Masters. If he’d lost, it’d be back to Banning to start training for fall football. He’s a linebacker.

It’s like making the Elite Eight in basketball. Or the semifinals in football or soccer, baseball or volleyball. As a wrestler, you wear that on your Letterman’s jacket. Forever.

While most writers rightfully focus on the 14 chases to each weight championships, at the other end are those kids hanging on to barely qualify.

Kids wrestling for fifth place – and a berth at Masters – are putting their entire season on the line. Losers from those matches go home. In tears. These kids are emotional, committed, all-out, fiercely competitive, put-it-all-on-the-line athletes.

Beaumont’s Michael Torquato had his shot at fifth place against Covina South Hills’ Trung Tran. He lost. In this case, though, sixth place from the Northern Division seemed to have pulled its way into the Masters.

While each division states top five finishers qualify for Masters, consider the math. In a 32-team bracket, six top-five finishers from each division equals 30 wrestlers. Two more are needed to complete the bracket.

Torquato advanced. This was a good ending.

Normally, there’s no hiding when you’re on the mat with the other guy. Those do-or-die duels are killers. Lose and it’s humiliation.

I’ve watched those kids over the years. Those matches. The losers. Their reactions. They’ll throw up in a garbage can. They’ll quickly disappear from the gym. An all-out silent treatment. Don’t talk to them or you’ll pay the price. Plus, there’s tears.

As for King’s lightweight, he never wavered in his negative vibes toward his heavyweight teammate. “He’ll take a bite of his burger and look over at me … and smile … then stick that straw in his mouth to sip his milkshake.

“He knows it makes me mad.”

It was, however, what drove the lightweight to better performances. Chip on his shoulder. A motivator. Wrestlers sacrifice all season – skipping Moms’ holiday pies, turkey dinners with all the trimmings and the New Year’s chips and dips – just so they can step on that scale before a meet.

Making weight means more than dating the Prom Queen.

“If I go farther than him at State,” he said at the time, “it’ll all be worth it.”

His celebration after State, he said, “would be a double cheese burger and a strawberry shake.”


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