For the first time since the 2011-2012 season, the Live Oak High wrestling team has won a championship. The Acorns went a perfect 7-0 in the Blossom Valley League’s Santa Teresa Division to win the title, and with that those around the team are hoping this is just the start of a successful turnaround for a program that traditionally has had tremendous success.
“We’re all really excited and feel this is a new chapter for Live Oak wrestling,” said Zach Souza, a junior who competes in the 152-pound weight class. “This team is turning over a new leaf and getting back into the grind of things the Live Oak wrestling team used to be known for.”
Junior Elver Avendano, who is currently ranked No. 7 in the CCS 160-pound weight class, said the wrestlers are motivated and working hard to continually improve.
“It’s been a really enjoyable experience being on the team this year,” he said. “The drive to win has been stronger and our wrestlers really like to work to get better every single day.”
Along with Avendano and Souza, the Acorns are led by standouts Pablo Robledo (113 pounds), Ricky Howe (120), Chris Garcia (132), Andres Rocha Jayasinha (138), Connor Thomas (145), and Gabriel Sandoval, who will be wrestling at 152 pounds in the league tournament and went 5-2 in dual meets. Sandoval, a sophomore, also went 5-2 last year wrestling in the 170-pound division.
Sandoval recently earned a key victory in the Acorns’ 47-33 win over Del Mar, which ignited the team to a comeback win. Luke Sandberg, who enjoyed another solid season running cross country in the fall, was promoted to the varsity squad earlier in the season and competed well. Heavyweight Freddy Mercado made dramatic improvement, going from 0-7 in dual meets last year to 3-4 this season.
Avendano and Souza were also teammates on the football team as both started on defense, with Avendano on the defensive line and Souza at middle linebacker. Both took fifth place in their respective weight classes in last year’s BVAL Finals, and both are aiming higher in this year’s event, which starts on Friday at Evergreen Valley High.
Souza has been impressed with several of his teammates, including Howe, Robledo and freshman Johanthan Terrazas. Live Oak High coach Sean Kelley and assistant Heath Souza took over the reins of the program this season, and are optimistic it can thrive with the talent on the roster and the amount of work the wrestlers are putting into their craft.
“Elver has a good mindset, a good heart and sets out a goal and goes after it,” Heath Souza said. “He’s always asking the coaches how he can get better. Zach missed some time due to a partial shoulder separation, but he’s come on strong lately. Chris Garcia is a junior striving to get up there, and he’ll have a good showing at BVALs. He’s won every dual meet in league this season. Ricky is an up and coming sophomore, Pablo is a freshman who is going to be a good one and the same goes with Johanthan. He impressed us right away that we thought to ourselves, ‘Where did this kid come from?’ He’s disciplined, listens and is smart.”
Souza also expects Jayasinha to do well in BVALs, and sees a lot of potential in Thomas.
“Connor is an inexperienced kid, but a very strong kid,” Souza said. “Once he gets his technique down and is able to use his strength, he’ll be really good.”
Zach Souza, Heath’s son, feels like he’s made tremendous improvement from last season. He’s focused on all of the little things, like circling the mat and positioning, knowing it will help him in the pivotal moments of every match.
“I’m also a lot stronger this year,” Zach said. “I have a lot more confidence on the mat because my shots are a lot cleaner, I’m a little more aggressive and I’m executing moves and doing all of the little things that are making a difference.”
Avendano said he competes with a lot of heart, and it shows whether he’s on the gridiron or the mat. At 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, Avendano is vastly undersized, especially in football. However, he uses his leverage against bigger offensive linemen, which allows him to play bigger than his size. On the mat, Avendano, like Souza, is enjoying his best season yet. Avendano has had two thrilling matches this season with Palma freshman Juan Carlos Escutia, winning by scores of 7-5 and 4-3.
In the first match between the two, Avendano was trailing 4-1 when a pair of reversals—the last one coming with under 30 seconds remaining—paved the way to a comeback victory. In the second match, Avendano produced additional late match heroics, utilizing a cow catcher to get Escutia on his back. The points Avendano gained from that sequence in the latter stages of the third period helped seal the outcome.
“Those were the hardest and most intense matches I’ve ever had because he pushes the pace all the time,” Avendano said. “I try to be more relaxed, but wrestling him made me realize I had to push the pace to become a better wrestler.”
With most of the team’s standouts projected to return next year, the Acorns could be spending the 2020-2021 season competing in the Mount Hamilton Division. If they are competing in the BVAL’s A division, they won’t run the table in league like they did this year, that’s for sure. But it would be a great sign for a program that had fallen on hard times recently, only to experience a turnaround this season.
Zach Souza epitomizes the resiliency and grit the program once again wants to have as its calling card. Souza suffered a shoulder injury off the mat early in the season. After a period of rest and rehab, Souza has strung together some impressive match wins lately, and he hopes to continue that into the league tournament.
“That injury was a little bit of a setback, but I’m feeling stronger all the time,” he said. “It’s taking little steps at a time, making sure I’m circling, getting comfortable on the mat, being in the right positioning, not cutting corners. I’ve definitely gotten better with my shots and am executing moves a lot different than I did from last year, and that is making a big difference.”