Daray Bland squared off against Elias Gonzales on one of four wrestling mats set up in the Coach Dean Nicholson Gym at Sanger High.

The Navo Classic Wrestling Tournament had hit high gear May 31, pitting about 300 wrestlers from Sanger’s elementary schools against one another in every weight class. Girls and boys competed. The classic, in its second year, drew nearly twice the 170 participants of its inaugural year.

“Six hundred bouts expected,” said Tim Lopez, Sanger Unified associate superintendent and event organizer.

So many young wrestlers showed that the event spilled over into Tuesday. A late start and the number of bouts forced the schedule to continue another day. Next year, Lopez said participants likely will be split into varsity and junior varsity categories.

The popularity was evident by the crowded bleachers and the parking lots, so full that cars lined both sides of East Annadale Avenue.

And many spectators focused on the far corner where Daray, a sixth-grader from Sequoia, and Elias, a fourth-grader from Sanger Academy, grappled. Daray appeared stronger and had a slight height advantage. But Elias’ technique enabled him to turn the advantage back to his favor multiple times.

They battled. Neither was interested in losing.

Both looked like they could beat the other. When Daray got close to pinning Elias, the younger wrestler escaped and returned the favor. Daray eventually won. Theirs drew a crowd to the edge of the mat.

“Hard,” Daray said after the match. And he said he’s likely to wrestle for the Apaches when in high school. “For sure.”

Elias also said he’s considering continuing the sport into high school. Asked how he was taking the loss, Elias said, “You can’t complain. You lose, you lose.”

But next time, he said he will take the lesson he learned that afternoon and catalog it, learn from it.

Sanger Academy coach David Gonzales, and Elias’ dad, gave his son one of those looks and reassuring hands on shoulder that only a dad could give. And the elder Gonzales gave the classic high marks.

“The program’s one of the best,” he said. “This is one of the best things they could do for the community.”

Gonzales said his team just keeps getting bigger, growing like other programs across Sanger.

“We’re just happy the numbers have gone up,” said Ramone Rodriguez, assistant Lincoln coach. “Hopefully, in the future we hope to compete against Clovis schools.”

Rusty Wilson, head Lincoln wrestling coach, said the high percentage of girls competing was a good sign. “It’s something that gets the whole community involved,” he said. “We get a lot of support. It’s one of the only events bringing kindergarten through sixth (together) district-wide.”

Navo, Sanger Unified’s former superintendent and the one whose name adorns the tournament, was pleased with this year’s event. “I think it’s great,” he said, standing just inside the door of the gym and taking in four matches at once. “I mean you’re seeing more kids. The parking lot is ridiculous. I see more dads in the audience than any other sport.”

Navo said Sanger’s starting to experience an evolution in wrestling. “The quality goes up,” he said. “If you can keep up the interest, in three to four years the high school’s going to have some really good wrestling teams.”

And Navo said wrestling is a sport open to anyone of any size and “where a kid who weighs 57 pounds can make the same contribution” as a kid who weighs twice as much or more. Of course that kid would have to dominate his weight class in his program to be the one chosen to wrestle at that weight.

The event also brought out recent alumni as assistant coaches, Angel Alvarez, class of 2015, and Sebastian “C-Bass” Oliva, class of 2016.

Josiah Mickle, a sixth-grader from John Wash, had just won his first bout after a loss the match previous. “I think it’s amazing all you have to do is put your effort in, and it’s a good thing whether you win or lose,” he said.

Mike Morales, coach of the Reagan team that won last year’s tournament, said he’s got four kids in the finals. “If they can pull it off in their weight classes, we’ve got a shot,” he said.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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