When a wrestling practice room is working at high level, it can create gems that otherwise might not have been formed.
The pressure of competing against top-level contenders on a daily basis develops a wrestler more than having good instincts and athletic ability.
Desert Vista High School’s wrestling team has had this foundation in place for years as individuals with a good pedigree have to bide their time until they can crack the lineup.
Tariq Hornbuckle came into the program as a quality freshman last year and at most programs would have slid right into the varsity lineup.
Instead, he had to wrestle junior varsity for most of the year behind Ernie del Rio and Jordan Martinez.
“I wanted to learn, but at the same time I wanted some matches,” Hornbuckle said. “I just wanted to make myself better.”
In some sports sitting behind quality teammates might mean a lack of development, but that wasn’t the case with Tariq, his coach said.
“We knew Tariq was a quality kid, maybe even a state qualifier or more, but we couldn’t get him in the lineup,” Thunder coach David Gonzales said.
“He had two good ones in front of him, but he kept getting better throughout the year and then he put in a lot of time over the summer so we knew he was going to be a big part of what we do this year,” he added.
The 113-pound sophomore is now in the lineup after de Rio, who weighs in at 106, and before Martinez at 120.
Hornbuckle finished third at the Coyote Open at the beginning of the season, and then two weeks ago won the Moon Valley Invitational, one of the year’s toughest tournaments.
"It made me want to go work more so I can go win more tournaments,” he said. “That’s way you have to look at it. I won a tournament, but there are always things to brush up on.”
Hornbuckle, who is 19-5 on the season, and his colleagues competed in one of the nation’s premier events of the season at the Cheesehead Invitational in Wisconsin over the weekend.
The Thunder finished 17th in the 31-team event with two wrestlers finishing among the top eight. They were Chad Porter, who finished fourth at 195 pounds, and sophomore heavyweight Brett Johnson, who finished sixth.
Porter, who is 25-2 on the season, entered the event undefeated and advanced to the semifinals before he ran into nationally-ranked Patrick Brucki of Illinois and was beaten handily.
He came back to finish fourth and got exactly what he was looking for before leaving.
“I’m just going to go out there and keep doing to do what I’ve been doing,” the defending state champion said. “There are some kids who will challenge me in Arizona but not like this. I can’t wait to see where I stand with them.”
The leap to a state placer contender isn’t limited to Hornbuckle as Johnson (23-7), 220-pounder Jackson Lee (22-8) and 160-pound Jack Mathers (13-9) should all be pushing for a spot on the podium at the state tournament in Prescott Valley a month from now.
Lee might have made the most progress after going 13-13 a year ago.
“I am doing better than I thought I would,” said Lee, who qualified for state last year as a sophomore. “After I made state last year it really showed me I could it. Working with Chad everyday makes better and I want to see how far I can take it.”
The development of some of these wrestlers shows Gonzales the environment they’ve created within the program. The practice room is where it needs to be to keep the Thunder moving toward a top-five finish in the 6A state tournament.
They’ll get another chance to prove it this weekend in Tucson for the Flowing Wells Invitational, the state’s toughest event.
“That’s what the room is all about,” Gonzales said. “Everyone puts in time and push themselves to this point. That’s where a lot of growth happens, and then they step on the mat that’s where you see it. They develop into state placers. Hopefully it happens for guys like Hornbuckle, Johnson and Lee this year.”
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