The Desert Vista wrestling program entered the year with three returning state champions, two high-profile transfers and the expectations that come along with such individual talent.
To win the team state title, however, it will take more than that. The Thunder showed a glimpse of what it could do last weekend when it won the Peoria Invitational title, as every wrestler entered in the tournament earned points.
"That's what it takes," Desert Vista coach David Gonzalez said. "It's great to get wrestlers in the finals and other placers, but where you win it is at the other weight classes. When those guys are competing, working and advancing then you have a chance."
While every point counts, the Thunder beat Sunnyside, which has won 14 straight state titles, 205.5 to 198 at Peoria, the big score comes from those who find their way to the podium.
And the Thunder just might win its first state title if a couple of seniors keep progressing as the postseason approaches.
State qualifiers Cooper Gardner (145) and Jimi Dixie (170) have given Desert Vista more scoring potential - behind state champions Kendall Love, Robbie Mathers and Alex Bambic - with their development.
They have never placed at the state tournament, but everything points to good results at Tim's Toyota Center Feb. 9-10.
Before then comes another test as the Thunder travel to Tucson this weekend for the 46th annual Flowing Wells Invitational, considered the state's premier event.
It starts today at 10:30 a.m., with the semifinals on Saturday at 10 a.m. and the finals at 6 p.m.
Desert Vista is considered one of the favorites, along with Corona del Sol, Sunnyside and a few others, especially if the Thunder can put its full lineup out there.
Senior state placer Mike Arredondo (220) won't wrestle as he visits Northern Arizona this weekend for football recruiting, while Love has yet to prove he can make weight consistently at 126 after winning state at 135 last season.
Something the Thunder can count on more and more is performances by Gardner and Dixie.
Gardner, who hasn't won a match in two state meets, is wrestling at his natural weight this year and looks stronger than ever.
The junior finished third at Peoria Invitational and has a 17-5 overall record. He had one blunder - getting pinned by Corona del Sol's Colton Winstead in a dual meet after Gardner built a 9-1 lead - but has turned into a takedown machine and has really benefited from the presence of state placers Derek Allen (152) and Robert Sobarzo (138) after they transferred from Mountain Ridge and Westview, respectively.
"I felt like I deserved to be in the finals (at Peoria)," said Gardner, despite getting pinned by Hamilton's Brandon Gavre in the semifinals. "I've worked hard to get to this point and even though I lost I still believe I can get there."
Dixie had dropped to 170 this year after competing at 189 as a junior. He didn't win a match at state, but the confidence gained by earning his way there went a long way in pushing him to an important offseason of development.
It's continued in recent weeks when Dixie started drilling more often with Bambic after the former failed to place in a California tournament over Christmas break.
It led to him winning the Peoria title and helped push the Thunder past Sunnyside for the team championship.
"We had to get after it again," Dixie said about training with Bambic after going 4-2 in California. "I've worked on being more aggressive."
Dixie, who is 21-5 on the year, has shown improvement as he pinned Hamilton's Shawn Gunter in the quarterfinals at Peoria after losing 9-6 in a dual meet to Gunter on Dec. 7.
"I've been getting better each time I wrestle," Dixie said. "Doing better than last year is my main goal."
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