To say South Dade wrestler Elijah Varona’s day got off to a bad start on Friday morning would be putting it mildly.
It was day one of the state wrestling finals at Silver Spurs Arena and just minutes before Varona was to step out onto the mat to begin defense of a state title he won a year ago, disaster struck in the warmup area.
That’s when two wrestlers warming up behind him, heavyweights to make matters worse, fell directly on his right ankle. Varona dropped to the ground writhing in pain, and it appeared he might have to forfeit his spot in the 113-pound weight class.
Or so it appeared.
Varona not only limped out on the mat and pinned his first-round opponent 15 minutes later, but two hours after that, after getting therapy in the trainer’s room and moving around on crutches, he returned for his second-round match.
Barely able to put any weight on his right leg, Varona gave new meaning to the words heart and determination as he not only won his second-round match but also pinned Strawberry Crest wrestler Manny Rameriz, who brought a 46-4 record into the match.
With his teammates screaming wildly and high-fiving in support, Varona was literally carried off the mat and right to the trainer’s room for more treatment.
And so goes just another day for South Dade wrestling, as the three-time defending state champion Bucs, who sent a record 12 wrestlers (out of a possible 14) into action, enjoyed another huge day by getting 10 of the 12 wrestlers through to Saturday’s semifinals.
South Dade, looking to became only the third team in state history to win four consecutive titles, is in prime position to do so as the Bucs enjoy a sizeable lead in the team standings with 106.5 points, 46.5 ahead of nearest pursuer Winter Springs.
Southwest is the only other Miami-Dade team in the top 10 in fourth place with 46.5.
Two defending state champions other than Varona also cruised into the semifinals, as Chei Hill (220) and Kyron Taylor (285) will be looking to defend their titles on Saturday night.
Two-time state champion Franco Valdes of Southwest also got through to the 138 semifinals, and a potential championship match against St. Thomas Aquinas’ Grant Aronoff is a possibility.
Southwest’s Alex Urquiza and South Dade’s Alyis Mursuli advanced to opposite semifinals and if they both win it would set up an all-Dade final in 132.
“I heard something pop and it really hurt so I knew it wasn’t good,” said Varona who confirmed leaving the trainers room that he had sustained a high-level sprain, a possible cracked bone and maybe some ligament damage. “The pain? Yeah man, it was there for sure but in that moment, all I could think about was there was no way I was going to go out like this. I had a state title to defend. I’m a state champion and state champions find a way, no matter what.”
South Dade coach Vic Balmeceda has been around for a long time and seen a lot of gutsy performances, including Ozzy Lugo, who went out a year ago and won a title with a partially separated shoulder. But he put what Varona did on Friday above everything.
“At the top of the list, no doubt about it,” said Balmeceda. “We’ve had kids get injured before in districts, maybe in advance of state but never 10 minutes before you go out on to the mat at state. It was amazing to watch. Elijah is dangerous to where he knows how to put people on their back with his style and he knew he needed to go out there and do that right away against the Rameriz kid.”
What kind of shape Varona’s ankle will be in before Saturday morning’s semis, where he’s set to square off against Anthony Vitale of Tampa Steinbrenner, is the question.
“As long as I’m breathing, I’ll be out there,” said a determined Varona.
HISTORY FOR JACKSON
It’s been exactly 40 years since Miami Jackson last crowned a state wrestling champion, when Tyrone Belote won the 155-pound division in 1977. But that drought has a chance to end on Saturday.
Generals heavyweight wrestler Brandon Bodden, one week after knocking off Cardinal Gibbons’ Adam Fox in the regional final to nail down a No. 1 seed, cruised through the first two rounds of Friday’s action in Class 1A, pinning both of his opponents.
Bodden, who is not only 36-2 but has recorded pins in all 36 of his wins, will square off against Josiah McCallum of Jacksonville Bishop Kenny in a Saturday morning semifinal, with a win putting him into Saturday night’s championship match.
“We have a chance to make history,” said Jackson coach David Francis. “Forty years is a long time and Brandon has had a great year and we’re confident he is in a good place both mentally and physical and we’re set to win.”
3A standings: 1. South Dade 106.5, 2. Winter Springs 60.0, 3. Fleming Island 58.5, 4. Miami Southwest 46.5, 5. St. Thomas Aquinas 43.0, 6. Kissimmee Osceola 37.5, Bradenton Manatee 29.5, 8. Orlando Freedom 27.0, 9. Wellington 26.5, 10. Flagler Palm Coast 25.0, 11. Oviedo Hagerty 25.0, 12. WPB Forest Hill 23.0, 13. Miami Killian 22.0, 14. Miami Southridge 22.0, 15. Dover Strawberry Crest 21.5. 3A semifinals (Miami-Dade) – 106: Briar Jackson (Fleming Island) vs. Bretli Reyna (South Dade), Ryan Rowland (Oviedo Hagerty) vs. Christophe Navarro (Lake Nona); 113: Ryan Boncamper (Killian) vs. Michael Bush (Sarasota), Anthony Vitale (Tampa Steinbrenner) vs. Elijah Varona (South Dade); 120: Michael DeAugustino (Flagler Palm Coast) vs. Malyke Hines (Osceola), Edward Mar Craig (Manatee) vs. Tyler Orta-Khawly (South Dade); 126: Avery Holder (Flager Palm Coast) vs. Marcus Abreu (Coral Park), Pablo Asenjo (Forest Hill) vs. Christian Morales (South Dade); 132: Alyis Mursuli (South Dade) vs. Vinny Sessa (Aquinas), Hunter Reed (Lakewood Ranch) vs. Alex Urquiza (Southwest); 138: Ethan Woods (Oviedo Hagerty) vs. Franco Valdes (Southwest), Cullen Telfer (Strawberry Crest) vs. Grant Aronoff (Aquinas); 145: Dimitri Alicea (Winter Springs) vs. Brevin Balmeceda (South Dade), Gavin Mitchiner (Palm Harbor University) vs. Alex Kiester (Tampa Freedom); 152: Paul Detwiler (Flemin Island) vs. Bryce Marcus (Aquinas), Blake Fuller (Osceola) vs. Todd Perry (South Dade); 160: Max Wohlabaugh (Winter Springs) vs. Charles Small (Manatee), Ethan DeLong (Osceola) vs. Mikaelle Fundora (South Dade); 170: Cole Mitchell (Winter Springs) vs. Angel Delcueto (Southwest), Luis Rios (Southridge) vs. Nate Ferkovich (Lake Brantley); 220: Montana Lewis (Winter Springs) vs. Michael Mireles (Southwest), Johan Alburquerque (John I. Leonard) vs. Chei Hill (South Dade); 285: Dylan Meeks (Dr. Phillips) vs. Trayvonne Jackson (Killian), Jose Concepcion (Fleming Island) vs. Kyron Taylor (South Dade)
1A semifinals (Miami-Dade): 220: Kurt Jackson (Green Cove Springs Clay) vs. Ben Goldin (Lake Highland Prep), Darrien Grant (Bradenton Southeast) vs. Cole Schwartzberg (Mater Lakes); 285: Jacob Marin (Wakulla) vs. Michael Morales (Lemon Bay), Josiah McCallum (Jacksonville Westside) vs. Brandon Bodden (Miami Jackson)