Bakersfield High's wrestling team is building another great class, but they are still freshmen.
And so it was with some apprehension that the Drillers sent five ninth-graders (plus two sophomores) into the Southwest Yosemite League finals Saturday night at Frontier.
"Those younger guys were dealing with the spotlight and the pressure of the postseason for the first time," BHS co-head coach Anthony Box said. "We needed them to step up."
That's just what happened: Led by championships from three freshmen -- and three rock-solid seniors -- the Drillers won their 17th straight league championships, totaling 273.5 points to second-place Frontier's 227.
The finals round started with a youth movement. Navonte Demison needed just 30 seconds to pin Frontier's J.J. Mares at 106 pounds, and J.J. Figueroa stuck Liberty's Jordan Patoc in 2:56 at 113.
"The coaches told me to get out there, get a takedown and get a pin," Demison said. "I just listen to my coaches."
Demison's two older brothers, Nektoe and Natrelle, both earned state medals for the Drillers.
"Growing up, I always wanted to be like my brothers and follow in their footsteps," Navonte said. "It feels really good to win my first league."
When Figueroa followed suit -- and another freshman, Sam Loera, added an 8-7 victory at 160 pounds -- it was clear Bakersfield is building a class to remember.
"All of us are really close," Demison said. "We all grew up together, and I can't wait to spend the next four years with those guys."
More pressing at the moment is the Central Section's Yosemite Divisional, Friday and Saturday at East High. The top four finishers in each weight class from the SWYL automatically advance to the divisional, where they'll run into nationally ranked powers Clovis -- the three-time defending state champion -- Clovis West and Clovis-Buchanan.
Bakersfield, which has won three state titles itself in the past 12 years, will find itself in the rare position of underdog at that point. But the Drillers do have some firepower, both with Figueroa (who's ranked No. 6 in the state at 113) and senior Bryce Martin (No. 2 at 170), who won his fourth SWYL title with a first-period pin of Liberty's Jeremy Maas.
"Those are our two studs at this point, Bryce and J.J.," Box said. "But we like our team. One of the things that's always separated this program from most others is that it's like a big family. I've been through it as a wrestler, and now I'm experiencing it as a coach. These kids are all best friends."
Other BHS champions were senior Sean Nickell at 126, sophomore Antonio Gutierrez at 145 and senior Travis Yarbrough at 220. The Drillers got as many titles from freshmen as they did from seniors.
"It's great that we're all the freshmen are on the same team now," said Figueroa, who won five state titles as a youth wrestler. "We want to build on the BHS legacy."
Perhaps future competition looms in the form of Frontier. The Titans finished as a distant runner-up for the fourth straight time since Bakersfield entered the SWYL, but Frontier had a finals round to remember. After Mares lost at 106, the Titans won all five of their championship matches.
"We had some great wins," Frontier coach Kirk Moore said. "It was a big step for us. It definitely was only one day, so we've got to repeat that performance, but now we know that it's there and it's possible. We have to add more in there, but it was a great day."
It included a comeback from 120-pounder Brock Welton that ended with a resounding pin of Bakersfield's Carlos Herrera, and it continued with freshman Jonathan Garcia, who was seeded third but dominated BHS senior Arik Onsurez 15-2 in the 132-pound final.
"I call Jon my secret weapon because nobody knows about him," Moore said. "I've known and coached him (in club wrestling) since he was 7 years old, and even though he's not as highly ranked as some kids in his class, he always finds a way in tournaments. He's very strong, and he's only 14. He's got a bright future."
Frontier also collected championships from three standout upperweights. Carlos Montejo needed double overtime to subdue Bakersfield's Elias Morales at 182, but Josh Bailey (195) and Jarrod Snyder (heavyweight) had easy pins.
Bailey's pin of Bakersfield's Frank Amaya came via a cradle in 19 seconds.
"I'm going to peak at the right time," said Bailey, who qualified for state last year but didn't medal. "This is the strongest I've ever been, and my goal is to get on the podium at state."
Liberty finished third as a team and Centennial edged Stockdale by a half-point for fourth. The Golden Hawks also won the other two championships: Alex Treiberg took the 138-pound title 2-1 with a last-second reversal of Liberty's Johnny Santore-Tovar, and 152-pounder Alex Lee beat Bakersfield freshman Ricardo Gonzalez, 9-4.
SWYL wrestling meet
Team: 1. Bakersfield 273.5; 2. Frontier 227; 3. Liberty 186; 4. Centennial 141.5; 5. Stockdale 141; 6. Independence 125.
Individual: 106: Demison, B, pin Mares, F, 0:30; 113: Figueroa, B, pin Patoc, L, 2:56; 120: Welton, F, pin Herrera, 5:31; 126: Nickell, B, maj. dec. Martin, S, 9-0; 132: Garcia, F, maj. dec. Onsurez, B, 15-2; 138: Treiberg, C, dec. Santore-Tovar, L, 2-1; 145: Gutierrez, B, maj. dec. Castillo, S, 9-1; 152: Lee, C, dec. Gonzalez, B, 9-4; 160: Loera, B, dec. Ja. Maas, L, 8-7; 170: Martin, B, pin Je. Maas, L, 1:27; 182: Montejo, F, dec. Rosales, B, 4-3 2OT; 195: Bailey, F, pin Amaya, B, 0:19; 220: Yarbrough, B, dec. Hall, I, 3-2; HWT: Snyder, F, pin Schoene, B, 3:19.
Third-place matches: 106: N. Rodriguez, L, won by default; 113: Meyer, S, dec. Saradio, F, 3-2; 120: I. Rodriquez, L, dec. Masqueda, S, 10-3; 126: Morphis, F, dec. Corona, I, 2-1; 132: Armijo, C, pin Wright, S, 0:42; 138: Annis, B, pin Corona, I, 3:33; 145: Garten, F, pin Manzo, L; 152: Gamboa, F, pin Trejino, L, 3:45; 160: White, C, pin Komin, F, 3:52; 170: Robles, I, dec. Byrd, F, 9-6; 182: Thomas, L, won by default; 195: Mitchell, L, dec. Griffith, I, 8-5; 220: Song, S, won by default; HWT: Sanchez, L, dec. Garris, C, 6-0.