The next wave of talented wrestlers to come out of the Desert Vista wrestling room have their work cut out for it considering the past two seasons.
All but one of the four individuals who combined for six state titles, while helping the Thunder to two top three finishes at the state tournament, are gone.
While the regular season is about four months away, the real work is down now as the state’s top wrestlers head to Fargo, N.D. this week for the Fila Cadet and Junior National Championships in Greco-roman and freestyle disciplines.
The top wrestlers go there seeking a “stop sign” trophy given to All-Americans (top eight) but sometimes it is more about the time on the mat than the rewards off of it.
“In order to get on the brink of the next level they need to go and test themselves against the best,” Thunder coach David Gonzalez said. “This is the time of the year to try things and evaluate where you are at and what you need to do in order to get better.”
If two-time state champion Alex Bambic and fellow senior Cooper Gardner are going to get any help in keeping Desert Vista’s run, rolling junior-to-be Tristan Ezell and sophomore-to-be Brian Mitchell are the best candidates.
It is going to difficult to replace the firepower lost to graduation with the departures of Robbie Mathers, Robert Sobarzo, Kendall Love and Derek Allen, but the Thunder have the type of program that always produces a quality lineup from top to bottom.
The difference makers in a lineup make all the difference, and the Thunder should have Ezell and Mitchell to count on next year.
Mitchell has already found the podium at the state level, finishing sixth at 106 pounds as a freshman, but needed to test himself nationally to see how far he has come since the season ended in February.
It has been a difficult run this summer, facing top competition at the western regionals in Iowa and the national folkstyle tournament in Idaho, but one great week in Fargo could change the outlook in a hurry.
“Brian is coming along and it has been great getting him some national exposure so he can see how he does on the big scene,” Gonzalez said. “He has taken it on the chin a little, but he is getting his name out there and competing against the best.”
Gonzalez believes Mitchell has the ability to develop into something special and this kind of exposure is the type of experience needed to get him there.
“He is really stepping it up and the confidence is coming,” Gonzalez said. “He is learning to never let the outcome rest in someone else’s hand.”
Ezell already knows all about that as he cited two victories that required an undeniable amount of will to come out on top in the biggest matches of his career this far.
Whether it was a consolation semifinals match in the Cliff Keen Reno Worlds in the summer of 2010 that he won in ultimate overtime to secure a top four finish, or last year’s state tournament when Westwood’s Trenton Zornes executed a five-point headlock early in the match, but Ezell got two third period takedowns to win 11-9 to stave off elimination.
“I definitely try to learn from each match, but those wins show that I can come back no matter what,” he said. “I like wrestling when the pressure is on and stepping up in big matches.”
Gonzalez has seen willingness from Ezell to go from a talented underclassman to a leader in the room.
“He is starting to really get it,” he said. “He is taking things to an intricate level by doing the extra things for himself that he knows will take him to the next level. This summer is going to be big for him.
“He has always had the moves, but now he understands when to hit the right move at the right time.”
Ezell, who went 25-13 at 182 last season and missed placing at state by one match, went 9-3 at the western regional duals in Idaho.
The focus now is on Fargo where he struggled in both disciplines one year ago.
“Last year was a shocking experience,” he said. “Every match is harder and any mistake beats you, but it made me better. I had a good year last year, but coming so close (to placing) has served as motivation for everything I’ve been doing (during the offseason.)
“I’ve wrestled on some big stages, but the biggest ones are still out there.”
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on a Twitter @JSkodaAFN.