KISSIMMEE Having celebrated state titles each of the past three years, South Dade wrestlers have gotten pretty used to the feeling.
But Saturday night brought something even more special.
Something they never had in the previous three.
Having already brought a huge lead into the finals thanks to seven wrestlers who won their semifinal matches on Saturday morning to make the finals, the Bucs were virtually assured of their fourth consecutive Class 3A title — which they won in style.
But when the hooping and hollering started when it was officially over, there was somebody extra special there who they celebrated with — their fallen principal Javier Perez.
Nearly killed in a horrific accident 10 months ago when a drunk driver struck him at his son’s baseball game at Tamiami Park, Perez has served as the inspiration of every student in the school with his will to survive.
And Bucs wrestlers were no exception.
Perez, who lost both legs in the accident, was off to the side in his wheelchair rooting his kids on as a total of six Bucs wrestlers won state titles.
“When I was in my hospital bed last June, I made a promise to Coach [Vic] Balmeceda that one of the first athletic events I was going to make it to would be state wrestling the following March and here I am,” Perez said.
“Vic does such a fabulous job with these kids that there was no way I wasn’t going to be up here tonight to experience something so special like this. I’m so happy for these kids.”
“He was laying right in that bad not looking all that great but he stared right at me and made that promise,” Balmeceda said. “His determination and courage is unmatched and I can’t even begin to tell you the profound effect it had on our kids this weekend when they saw him.”
At front and center of all South Dade champions and somebody who really was effected by Perez’s appearance was Elijah Varona.
When two heavyweights accidentally fell on his right ankle during Friday morning warmups preceding the first round causing major damage, it appeared he would have to forfeit his chance to defend his 113-pound state title.
Varona had none of it. Even though he hobbled around on crutches, he surged his way all the way to the finals, pinning all three of his opponents on the way and then capped if off by beating Michael Bush of Sarasota 11-3.
“When I saw Mr. Perez on Friday, he came over and talked to me and my dad after my accident,” said Varona, a senior who is headed to Ohio State.
“And it was like, looking at him in that wheelchair with no legs and everything he had been through in his life since last year, here I was complaining about some stupid ankle injury? No way. It made me think what I had to go out and do was nothing and that’s exactly what I did.”
“I just told him and his dad that the power of the mind can overcome almost anything,” Perez said. “That mental discipline and the power of positive thinking which I’ve undoubtedly had to rely on these last 10 months will carry you through. I’m so proud of Elijah for what he did out there tonight and the example he set for others.”
South Dade got the champions train rolling right out of the gate when Bretli Reyna, just a freshman, won the 106-pound title beating Ryan Rowland from Oviedo Hagerty followed by Varona, who took to the mat hopping on one leg with a roaring crowd clearly behind him.
Alyis Mursuli became the Bucs third champion when he pinned Hunter Reed of Bradenton Lakewood Ranch to win 132 followed by the coaches son, Brevin Balmeceda, who bested Gavin Mitchiner of Palm Harbor University 11-2 to win the 145 class.
Chei Hill made it five titles for South Dade, finished his year undefeated at 58-0 and made it back-to-back state titles when he pinned Southwest's Michael Mireles at 3:27 to win the 220 division.
The Bucs finished things off in style in the evenings's final match of the night that turned out to be the most exciting. That’s when Kyron Taylor, the defending state champ in the heavyweight division upset undefeated Dylan Meeks from Orlando Dr. Phillips 5-4 on a takedown with 30 seconds left.
“The most intense match I’ve ever been a part of,” said an exhausted Taylor who is headed to Marshall University. “What a great night for South Dade wrestling.”
The state title marked an even dozen now for South Dade, second-most in the state and marked only the third time in state history a team has won four in a row, matching Oviedo’s four in a row from 2004-07 but light years behind powerhouse Brandon, which won its 16th consecutive title in Class 2A on Saturday.
“We came here with the goal of setting more records because you always have to challenge the kids to try and set their own mark and they actually accomplished what they set out to do,” said Balmeceda. “And then you see what Elijah did out on that mat and that’s just a reflection of the type of kids we have. He’s a state champ and that’s what state champs do.”
After watching his teammate Franco Valdes fall in the 138 final, Southwest’s Angel Delcueto became the only non-South Dade wrestler to win a title when he defeated Lake Brantley's Nate Ferkovich 8-4 to win the 170-pound class.
“Four years of hard work and this was my last chance,” said Delcueto. “I really wanted this so bad and feel honored to carry the Southwest banner out of here tonight.”
JACKSON WRESTLER FALLS SHORT
Miami Jackson wrestler Brandon Bodden went to bed Friday night hoping he would make history on Saturday.
Bodden had torn through the first two rounds of his heavyweight division in the Class 1A state wrestling finals and was two wins away from become the first Jackson wrestler in 40 years to win a state title.
But Bodden never even saw the final as he got knocked off by Josiah McCallum of Jacksonville Bishop Kenny in a morning semifinal. Despite holding an early lead, Bodden made a mistake, got flipped and pinned by McCallum 32 seconds into the second period. He eventually finished fourth.
“When you get up here with this competition, all it takes is one mistake and somebody will make you pay and I paid for my mistake,” said Bodden. “I’m still proud to have represented Jackson wrestling the way I did.”
Championship: (Dade Wrestlers) – 106: Bretli Reyna (South Dade) d. Ryan Rowland (Oviedo Hagerty) Fall, 4:59; 113: Elijah Varona (South Dade) d. Michael Bush (Sarasota) 11-3; 132: Alyis Mursuli (South Dade) d. Hunter Reed (Bradenton Lakewood Ranch) Fall, 3:01; 138: Grant Aronoff (Aquinas) d. Franco Valdes 7-0; 145: Brevin Balmeceda (South Dade) d. Gavin Mitchiner (Palm Harbor University) 11-2; 152: Bryce Marcus (Aquinas) d. Todd Perry (South Dade) Fall, 5:23.
3A Consolation: (Dade Wrestlers) – 113: Ryan Boncamper (Killian) d. Anthony Vitale (Steinbrenner) 5-3; 126: Marcus Abreu (Coral Park) d. Jared Abramson (Wellington) 5-1; 132: Alex Urquiza (Southwest) d. Gant Moore (Buchholz) 8-1; 152: Paul Detwiler (Fleming Island) d. Antony Kinsey (Southridge) 8-6; 160: Max Wohlabaugh (Winter Springs) d. Mikaelle Fundora (South Dade) 10-1; 170: Cole Mitchell (Winter Springs) d. Luis Rios (Southridge) 7-3; 285: Jaafari Stephens (Coral Gables) d. Trayvonne Jackson (Killian) Fall, 0:44. 2A – 152: Jesse Martinez (Ft. Myers Riverdale) d. Danny Perez (Sunset) Fall, 0:53. 1A – 285: Curtis Ruff (Lake Highland Prep) d. Brandon Bodden (Jackson) 5-0.