Menlo College senior Iman Kazem went from being an unwanted high school teammate to becoming a senior team captain of the nation's top-ranked women's wrestling program and her story is just beginning.
Kazem, who ranks fourth in the nation in the 155 division, rose out of her situation to become the Oaks team captain as a sophomore.
"I had never thought about naming a sophomore captain before," Menlo coach Joey Bareng said. "But I saw it early. Once we decided we were sure about it, we haven't looked back. Sophomore team captain. That speaks for itself."
When she talks, it's easy to see, and feel, the passion, the heart and the determination behind her words. She's a natural leader.
"I transferred to Tracy (High) from Dublin and was the only girl on the team," Kazam said. "Nobody wanted to work with me. I had to come up with something to do on my own, from scratch. I had to pave my own way."
Salvador Alvarado, to whom she is eternally grateful, volunteered to take her to tournaments.
"Without help I never really felt good enough," she said.
That all changed at Menlo, which competes at the WCWA Nationals in Marietta, Georgia beginning Friday. The two-day event is the first of two national tournaments for the Oaks.
The Oaks moved into the top spot of the WCWA coaches poll earlier this week and, for the first time, ranks at the top in both the NAIA and the WCWA.
Palo Alto grad Sara Aguliar, now a sophomore, and Cupertino product Solin Piearcy, a junior, had it a little better in high school but both were also on an island as far as a team went. There wasn't one, though both helped spark interest as girls' high school programs quickly developed.
Piearcy is ranked third at 136 and Aguilar ranks fourth in her division.
Freshmen Alleida Martinez (109) and Gracie Figueroa (116) figure prominently in Menlo's rise as the former Selma High and California state champions are ranked first in both the NAIA and WCWA.
The Oaks always had a solid, nationally-recognized program, founded by the late Lee Allen, a two-time Olympian who came to Menlo from Skyline College.
When Martinez and Figueroa arrived on campus this season, the program took a quantam leap forward.
"You dream about kids like that," Bareng said. "They're at the peak and it's just a hint of what's to come. We're not close to where this program can get to. There's a lot more to do."
In total, seven wrestlers are ranked among the top four nationally in their respective divisions. Precious Bell ranks second and South San Francisco resident Hiba Salem is fourth.
"The coaching staff here has helped me grow and I love the atompshere," Kazam said. "We all knew this program was going places. The goal was to get better every year. There's been a lot of hard work the previous years and it's up to us to uphold the No. 1 ranking. There's no time to rest. It's about the overall performance and we believe in every single person in the room."
Kazam was one of the first people Aguilar met at Menlo.
"She was immediately welcoming," said Aguilar, a CCS champion and fourth-place finisher at state. "I drilled with her and she was patient but always pushing me, especially when I got tired. She told me I had to keep going and to trust myself."
Aguilar said Menlo was always in her future and once she arrived, knew she found a home.
"I felt like we had a lot of potential and we're peaking at the right time," Aguilar said. "We're focusing on fixing the little things and just training."
Menlo has not competed since the Oregon Classic Women's Open on Jan. 19 but they haven't taken any time off.
"Our room is so intense it's like wrestling in a tournament every day," Kazam said. "We need that to be prepared."
While Piearcy was at Cupertino, wrestling in college sounded crazy. But she attended summer camps at Menlo and remembers a conversation she had with Salem, who is a senior.
"It's funny that we ended up here together," Piearcy said. "She was telling me about the family lifestyle, that it was a genuine feeling of community. It was a pefect fit."
Piearcy became a team captain this season and credits Kazam for that.
"As a sophomore, and I've told her this, I was inspired by her, by her work ethic, her leadership, her competitiveness, her drive," Piearcy said. "Working with her is a privilege. And I love how the alumni come back every year. You realize this community is a lifelong thing."
After competing at the WCWA championships, there's still another month of the season leading up to the inaugural NAIA championships March 15-16.
"We've been training for the nationals since the beginning," Piearcy said. "That's always been the goal. Now that I'm an upperclassman, it's amazing to see the progress. I remember when coach Bareng texted us that we were ranked fifth and what a huge milestone that was. We're not going to stop now."