Days turn into months, a waiting game played since September, as high school athletes troop through the COVID-19-impacted school year without knowing when — or if — they will take the field, court or mat this spring.
Meanwhile, one Clovis wrestling club has found a way to safely navigate through state health guidelines and give its athletes what they’ve missed most: a chance to compete.
As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
“Having these kids back on the mat is the best feeling ever,” said Sergio Montoya Sr, owner of Red Wave Wrestling. “It shows these kids can adapt to anything that comes their way.”
Montoya Sr. operates Red Wave Wrestling, a gym located on Herndon and Villa that used to be owned by the Llorens family under Bad Donkey Wrestling. He’s seen talented young wrestlers aplenty pass through his doors and has fielded national title-winning teams in the 7-and-under division.
Yet with the pandemic putting the high school season in limbo, the owner’s son, Sergio Jr., assembled a team of high school wrestlers for a traveling national team known as “Cali Red Wrestling.”
“It was awesome, because this was my first time putting together my own team and having the confidence in my guys,” Montoya Jr. said.
Montoya Jr, a sophomore at Clovis North High School, selected 12 Broncos on the 17-man wrestling roster.
“Most people would go around to Buchanan, the returning five-time state champs, but it was cool to pick my own team and build our relationships together,” Montoya Jr. said.
Members of Cali Red Wrestling from the Clovis North program include: two-time state runner-up Ryan Franco, Gavin Trujillo, Colton Kobashi, James Trujillo, Ty Chandler, Ryan Watts, Ryan Fiorentino, Spencer Steiner, Paul Sharp, Gavin Bauder, Damian Montoya (currently at Granite Ridge) and Montoya Jr.
George Rosas of Clovis High, Carston Rawls of St. Francis, Cade Lucio of Bakersfield, Jake Prudek of Caruthers and Jacob Christiansen of Durham High made up the non-Broncos on Cali Red’s roster. As Montoya Sr. explained, despite the high volume of Broncos wrestling for its national team, Red Wave Wrestling is a “non-partisan” club open to any school — and that invitation goes far beyond the confines of the Central Valley.
“I had kids coming down from Gilroy, L.A., and Sacramento for the Sunday practice, which is for the national team,” Montoya Sr. remembered. “I have a strict rule that you represent Red Wave and Red Wave only, but when I made Cali Red, I left that rule open so other kids can come in.”
With the new influx of high school students, however, came the increased risk of COVID-19. The gym had to follow precautions and guidelines set forth by California this past fall, but Montoya Sr. said a lot of the team’s training didn’t take place in the gym.
“A lot of these kids trained on their own,” Montoya Sr. said. “My son and his buddies would go running 4 to 5 miles in the morning, because we had limitations to working out and having big groups, so it was really hard to get the team all together and get in sync with one another.”
“What played a big role into this was a majority of the kids were from Clovis North, so a lot of these kids have relationships. They’ve been together for so long, and to be separated and still work out and find a way to keep doing what they love… as soon I told them about a duals tournament in Florida, parents jumped at it and the kids wanted to do it.”
Spearheaded by coaches Cleo Lane and Damani Buckley, Cali Red turned a potentially lost season into an opportunity to compete — and win — against the best wrestling clubs in the country, at the Sunshine Preseason National Duals in Orlando, FL from Nov. 21-22.
Hunkered down at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort along with 37 other teams, Cali Red wrestled in a bubble-like atmosphere, just 11 miles up Interstate 4 from where the NBA staged their bubble for the playoffs. Similar to the NBA’s version, teams were not allowed to leave the resort and masks were required at all times when athletes were not wrestling.
The elder Montoya tempered his expectations for the tournament at first, given the lack of time his team spent together back in California, but any doubts of his quickly subsided when the matches started.
“I wasn’t expecting to go over there and really wreck as much as we did,” Montoya Sr. explained. “Then on the first day, we didn’t have a point scored on us.”
“I don’t think we lost one match on the first day,” Montoya Jr. asserted.
Cali Red dominated its way through the preliminary duals and reached the Gold Pool, where the tournament’s top 16 teams dualed. They reached the championship by defeating three other teams in the Gold pool: Eagle Empire in the first round, 73-3; Gladiator/South Dake in the quarterfinals, 51-18; and Superior Wrestling Academy in the semifinals, 55-27.
Cali Red Wrestling completed its championship run in the Gold Pool finals, taking down KWA from Minnesota, 39-24. The team battled soreness and stiffer competition in its closest dual of the tournament, but reeled off five straight victories to secure the team title.
Compared to the other national titles Red Wave has won, the Sunshine National Duals title will be among the most memorable Montoya Sr. has won as the gym’s owner.
“It’s up there [for my favorite], because it’s a high school one,” Montoya Sr. said. “I’m used to doing 8th grade and under wrestling but by my son putting this team together, it meant a lot to us because it was a chance for them to get back in the swing of things.”
The tournament meant an even greater deal to the young man who kicked the entire thing into motion.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Montoya Jr. said. “Duals are fun because you’re cheering on your teammates and that makes it a family-type of vibe, and where it’s located in Orlando, Florida, you can’t get much better than that.”
Orlando won’t be the last stop for Cali Red Wrestling this year either — tournaments in Texas, South Carolina and Arizona await in the spring.
Red Wave Wrestling has come a long way since it started in the Montoyas’ garage. Throughout it all, Montoya Sr. maintains his club’s mission is always the same: “We want to produce good Clovis wrestlers for the Valley.”
“Clovis is about wrestling… when we went to Oklahoma or Pennsylvania wrestling before COVID, it’d be funny to me because we would travel all these miles away to go to the East Coast or Midwest and our kids would be seeing each other in the championship,” Montoya Sr. remembered.
“That’s how you know Clovis is a remarkable place to live and wrestle for.”