For the first time in school history, Menlo College can claim a national champion. The Oaks' women's wrestling team turned a lot of hard work, personal sacrifice and desire into a WCWA national title, along with three individual champions and nine All-Americans; Palo Alto grad Sara Aguilar among them.
The season is not over for Menlo. There's still the business of the NAIA national championships in March. For now, however, let the celebration continue.
Menlo College earned 199 1/2 points to edge Simon Fraser, which had 195. McKendree University finished third with 189. It was going to be a three-team race all evening long, and it came down to the championship round, where three Oaks won and a fourth became a national runner-up.
"It's incredible, it's surreal," Menlo coach Joey Bareng said as he was fighting back tears. "There are no words to explain how I feel right now. I'm so proud of the girls and it gets me emotional just thinking about everyone's journey and how far we've come and all the hard work on the backend to make this happen. It's for everyone who has ever wrestled for Menlo College, anyone who has ever supported us, the Menlo community, it's everybody."
Bareng certainly was not the only one who felt that winning the title was "surreal." Director of Athletics Keith Spataro, a former wrestling coach, was onsite to see Menlo win its first national title, and he could not have been more elated.
"To think that we went from nothing for 92 years to being able to put together a national championship team is unbelievable," Spataro said. "When you win a national title, you have to have all the right things come together. You have to have the right coaching staff, the right student-athletes, and you have to create an environment for them to be successful. When we started the program, I had a clear vision of what I wanted it to look like. We've been close, but nothing feels like this. This is super special and all of our programs should get to experience this."
The Freshman, Part I
Top-ranked Alleida Martinez became the first freshman national champion for the Oaks since 2004 when she won the title in the 109 bracket. She won twice on the final day and was able to savor her title. She first defeated No. 5 Ciara McCrae 10-0 via tech fall in the semis and met second-ranked McKayla Campbell of Campbellsville University for the title. She ended it with a flourish, winning via a pin.
The Freshman, Part II
Gracie Figueroa, Martinez's high school teammate as well, successfully defended her top ranking at 116. Figueroa won her semifinal match via tech fall over No. 6 Jathiya Isaac of Wayland Baptist. Her opponent in the final was second-ranked Felicity Taylor of McKendre. The Bearcat was no match for the freshman, who took control of the match from the beginning and won 7-0.
Clinching In Style
In order to win a national championship, the Oaks needed to have three champions. Cupertino grad Solin Piearcy, a team captain, showed why she's a leader. She trailed in her semifinal match, 4-1, in the second period to No. 4 Kayla Marano of Emmanuel College, who beat her earlier in the year.
The third-ranked Piearcy forced Marano to the mat, got her in a leg lace, and the match was essentially over. She was able to rattle off roll after roll to pick up the final 13 points and tech fall her 14-4.
Her championship match was similar. Down 1-0 to No. 2 Nicole Joseph of King University, she scored a takedown, wrapped up the legs of Joseph, and recorded a technical fall.
"I was more focused on what she was doing, not really what I could be doing," Piearcy said of her matches. "But then I heard the Menlo community and family tell me 'Open up! Do this, do that!' I'm like, okay, I can do this. And when I got her down on the mat, I knew what I could do. It became all about the top-bottom and I love the leg lace. I just felt everybody's support, and all of a sudden I heard everyone screaming."
Going for a Sweep
With the title clinched, No. 4 Iman Kazem, also a team captain, went to work with her sights set on becoming the fourth Oak to win a title. She took on No. 3 Alyvia Fiske in the semifinals, someone who Kazem had not yet beaten.
In a thrilling back-and-forth affair, Kazem scored a big takedown in the final moments to pull ahead and win 9-7, securing a spot in the title match, where she drew top-ranked Alexandria Glaude of McKendree. Despite scoring a late takedown, Kazem fell 6-2 to finish second overall. She wraps up her final WCWA tournament with her best finish yet.
The first Oak to compete in a medal match, Hiba Salem went 2-1 on Saturday and took fourth place. She won her first two to advance to the third place match. The three-time All-American beat No. 8 Jaclyn McNichols of King University 7-5 and recorded a tech fall over No. 2 Junnette Caldera of Jamestown 15-3, setting up a match with No. 3 Nina Pham of Wayland Baptist. Pham came out on top with a tech fall victory.
Arguably the most difficult road traveled to a medal match was Precious Bell, who lost her first match on Friday and created a long and arduous road to the end. The first two victories on the day for Bell were via tech falls, including a massive 15-2 tech fall win over Brittany Marshall of Wayland Baptist, the top-ranked wrestler in 170, just ahead of Bell, who is second-ranked. No. 4 Mariah Harris of Campbellsville University stood in the way during the third-place match, and in her eighth and final match of the weekend, Bell came up just short, falling 3-2 and finishing fourth with a record of 6-2.
First-time All-American, fifth-ranked Tiana Jackson was poised and ready to make some noise as she wrestled her semifinal match against top-ranked Dominque Parrish of Simon Fraser. Jackson was ultimately knocked down via tech fall, dropping her into a match against No. 9 Koral Sugiyama of Campbellsville, who also won, sending Jackson to the fifth place match against No. 2 Dajan Treder of Providence, and after each wrestler was able to score a takedown late, it was Treder on top with a 6-5 final and giving sixth place to Jackson, with a 4-3 record to her name.
Seventh-ranked Angela Peralta placed eighth at 143. Her matchups were difficult, starting with No. 2 Ashlynn Ortega of King. Peralta was not able to score in the match, dropping the decision 5-0 and placing her in the seventh-place match against sixth-ranked Sara Brinkac of Simon Fraser. In another big match for the Oaks in terms of team score, Peralta scored a late takedown but couldn't follow it up with more as she lost 7-4 and finished eighth. Peralta wrestled six times this weekend and finished with a 3-3 mark.
Some of the most exciting consolation matches of the tournament came via Palo Alto grad and No. 4 Sara Aguilar, a first time All-American. She drew No. 8 Jesse Kirby of Cumberlands in her first match, and the two went back-and-forth, with takedown after takedown.
Aguilar started each period strong, but Kirby finished stronger, with a takedown in the final 30 seconds to seal a 16-12 decision win over Aguilar.
This set up a match with No. 9 Alexandra Castillo of Campbellsville for seventh. Aguilar started well but couldn't finish off Castillo, who got the best of her with an 8-4 decision. Aguilar went 4-3 overall.
Let the Celebrating Begin!
When asked about his plans to celebrate, coach Bareng started laughing and said that he will definitely take some time to enjoy this. "I want to hang out with these ladies, I want to have dinner with my coaches. I'm going to play some good music in the car and sing it up with the girls. I'm going to go home and kiss my wife, kiss my kids. They've sacrificed a lot for this to happen too."
Spataro took a different approach to the aftermath of Menlo winning its first national title. "I think we have everything in place (to win more national titles)," Spataro said with a smile. "We've done a lot of things in the last few years with facility upgrades and the way our scholarships have increased. We also have (Menlo President, Steven Weiner) who loves sports and supports us. When you have all of these things, it's hard to find in today's higher education. There's no reason why this should be our last."