Nyla Valencia was never close to being challenged. And that’s all you need to know in regards to the Sobrato High sophomore who ran roughshod over the competition in winning the 106-pound weight class in the CIF State Girls Wrestling Championships last Saturday at Mechanics Bank Arena in Bakersfield. In five matches, Valencia’s “closest” score was 11-4, which came in the final against top seed Alyssa Valdivia.
Valencia beat her four other opponents by scores of 15-0, 9-1, 12-0 and 11-1, all technical falls or major decisions. Valencia came in unseeded because she often worked out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado, forgoing a good chunk of high school competition in the regular season. That meant she didn’t have an ample body of work for seeding committees to go on, which is why she received what is now a laughable No. 6 seed in the CCS tournament and was unseeded—yes, unseeded—in the CIF State Championships. Of course, wrestling insiders knew better, so the fact Valencia was unseeded only meant that whoever was on her side of the tournament draw got the short end of the straw. Valencia knocked off the No. 1, 2, 6 and 7 seeds en route to winning the title.
Even though Valencia has faced tougher competition in high-profile national championships and world tournaments, winning state meant a ton for a variety of reasons. She became the first Sobrato High wrestler—boy or girl—to win a state championship. It also was significant considering she was the first to accomplish the feat in a family that features her dad, Joel, who was a standout wrestler in high school and her younger brother, Aden, a world champion who will no doubt win a state title once he arrives at Sobrato High as a freshman next year. But for now, it’s Nyla who stands alone as the family’s only state champion.
“There was a lot of emotion because it was the first state title,” she said. “This was my dad’s ultimate goal when he was a high school student to win a state championship, but he couldn’t fulfill the dream of his. I was the first one in the family to do it, so it was big in that sense.”
Valencia’s teammate, Abbeygael Cabuag, capped off a spectacular freshman season with an eighth-place showing at state. Cabuag’s tournament was filled with peaks and valleys, as she either won by pinfall or lost by pinfall and technical fall. Cabuag, who won the 101-pound division in the Blossom Valley League Championships before placing third in the CCS Tournament, opened her state tourney by shocking top seed Paige Morales, recording a pin at 3 minutes, 9 seconds into the match after trailing 4-1.
Cabuag won by pinfall in her next match before losing 15-0 to Fremont of Sunnyvale’s Melissa Lee in the quarterfinals. Cabuag was sent to the consolation bracket, where she won her first match there by pinfall at 2:56, which set up a rematch with Morales, who exacted payback with a 18-3 victory. Cabuag then got pinned at the 2:50 mark in the seventh-place match to finish eighth overall.
“The state tournament was definitely a roller coaster of emotions,” Cabuag said. “Going into it as an unseeded wrestler, no one really knew me and I was flying under the radar. But a lot of people know my name now.”
They sure do. Cabuag surprised even herself by beating Morales in the opening round. Morales was in control of the match when Cabuag hit a granby roll while in bottom position and got Morales on her back, which led to the pin.
“It (the granby roll) is something I don’t use very often,” Cabuag said. “But if I need to, I have it. In that moment I was getting ready to do it, because the granby can be a 50-50 move where I could get caught or I could catch her. So I took the risk and came through. I really tried to stay calm throughout the whole thing and realized she was on her back. I kept repeating that everyone is beatable in my head and got the pin. I was pretty shocked and speechless. Going into that first match against the first seed, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve always said everyone is beatable, but I surprised myself in front of my friends and family who were there to support me, and it was a great feeling.”
Talk about the ultimate adrenaline rush: Cabuag was in the race of her life just to get to the main mat after getting redirected to the wrong location by an event staff member. Cabuag made it in time for the match, barely avoiding a disqualification. Cabuag and Valencia only took a couple of days off before resuming training again, as they both have big plans to not only improve in the summer but excel in tournaments.
“I feel like I can work a lot better over the summer and come out with a bang next season,” Cabuag said.
Valencia was proud of Cabuag’s performance, and had high praise for the freshman.
“Abbey had some exceptionally tough and gritty matches,” Valencia said. “The one thing that separates Abbey from most of her competition is her grit and grind. She wants to win incredibly bad, and she leaves it all out on the mat. In that sense, she’s inspiring. She’s undersized and I think weighed eight pounds less than the weight (limit). So she was wrestling against bigger girls. If she gets bigger, she’ll surely win a state title. She has all the skills, the speed, the mentality. I’ll be there every step of the way and make sure she gets her goal.”
One match in the state tournament showed just how far Valencia has come. Matched up against Lilly Avalos in the quarterfinals, Valencia steamrolled to a 12-0 victory. Avalos and Valencia had met twice previously, with Avalos winning both times. However, their last match prior to state was four years ago, and Valencia was ready to pounce. Valencia has gotten physically stronger and developed superior technical skills in the last several years, and it showed.
“I remember she used to overpower me, but the big difference now is I felt so much stronger than the girls here that I was able to overpower all my opponents,” Valencia said.
The Sobrato standout wasn’t satisfied with the way she wrestled in her first three matches, but as the tournament went on, she got more refined, wrestled smarter and was unstoppable with her shooting.
“In my last two matches, I was getting more offensive,” she said. “I was getting to my shots, my hips, and I was making smarter decisions. It all came down to opening up more and being relaxed.”
By the time Valencia got to the final, there was a sense of peace and calm that settled her, and she knew she was going to have her arm raised in victory.
“I was wrestling as if nothing was going to stop me from winning that title,” she said. “In that moment, this was the most important thing to me, but I didn’t let it get to my head. I knew I was going to win because I was incredibly focused, incredibly relaxed, motivated and confident. I got myself to that point, and all I did was take a deep breath and then got the result I wanted. I wanted to leave it all out there. My dad likes to reference Abbey because when she’s wrestling, she leaves it all on the mat. He tells me I need to wrestle as if I was going to die, to rip my heart out and leave it out on the mat. I need to die on the mat.”
Nyla said her dad has a motto for her when she delivers a tour de force performance, like she did in the semifinals and finals: She has risen. At the CIF State Championships, Valencia had risen indeed.