In a sport sowed by machismo and muscles, Sunset heavyweight Gustavo Mendez approaches each wrestling meet as a thinking game.
The mental side of wrestling, unearthing an opponent's weaknesses with judiciousness, exploring tendencies and exploiting them ruthlessly appeals to the 285-pounder even more so than pounding a foe to the mat. Make no mistake, the two-way linemen can get nasty physically. On the football field, Mendez dished out pancakes like a short-staffed Denny's sous chef. It's just at the higher weight classes, where pins and falls are hard to come by, the grappler that's locked in cognitively often has the edge.
With Sunset tied 36-36 against Southridge heading into Mendez's head-to-head battle with Nomani Liu the final match of the meet, the Apollo co-captain set out his gameplan, executed and took his team to a much-needed Metro League win. The junior pinned Liu in a rather prompt first-round fashion, giving the Apollos a 42-36 triumph at Sunset High School on January 11.
"I want to wrestle like it's a chess match, just slow and take my shots," Mendez said. "Heavyweights don't usually take a lot of shots. Usually, we get two points and ride them out the whole time. Somebody might get a crazy back point. But it's about the small things. If you trip a little bit, you might be on our back."
Mendez's fall was the exclamation point on a huge close to the match for the Apollos. Trailing Southridge 36-24, Devon Roberts (195 pounds) had a crucial third-period pin that Sunset within 36-30 of the Skyhawks. Then Sunset senior Taye Courtney won by forfeit to tie the match 36-26 to set up Mendez's meet-sealing triumph. Six of Sunset's wins were decided on the mat rather than forfeit, as 132-pound Humberto Soto won by decision, 145-pound Brock Banton and 152-pound Seth Young won by fall and 160-pound McLean Asad won in overtime.
"We knew we had to do this together, as a team and couldn't make a lot of mistakes because Southridge was just as good as we were," Courtney said. "(Roberts and Banton) were out there acting like they've been doing this for 1,000 years. I'm really proud of those guys. They trusted what they've been learning and brought it to the mat. After this, we want to go out and win another (meet). I think we're a lot hungrier and a lot more focused. That led to this win and if we keep that up, we can go dominate the league."
Mendez and the 220-pound Courtney are workout partners in the Apollo practice room who battle it out every day and push each other to get better. There's an unmistakable bond between the two, forged from their football days, enduring "Hell Week" in the summer, pushing through extended weight room sessions and processing through them on the car rides home. Life in the trenches is often unglamorous yet taxing and demanding. Mendez and Courtney came together through the strife.
"It's that grind we've been through...I've really bonded with Gustavo," Courtney said. "Last year he came out for wrestling and we really didn't have that partnership, but this year it's like we're wrestling as one. He's everything I want in a co-captain, somebody who's right by my side."
They were part of an underappreciated Apollo defense that helped Sunset reach the second round of the 6A playoffs. Now they're the core co-captains of a wrestling program looking to make a leap, two Apollos proud of one another and the team's progress.
"We hold each other accountable," Courtney said. "I work hard because I want to make him better. He works hard because he wants to make me better. We just click."
Mendez is only in his second year of wrestling after admittedly "hating" the sport his freshman year and quitting it altogether. But the coaxing and encouraging from Sunset's coaching staff, specifically Kerry Degman and Jeremy Cox brought Mendez back to the mat as a sophomore where he starred. His junior season has been a big success so far and the big man might be the 285-pound district favorite.
"It's a pretty good sport once you get good at it and get the basics down," Mendez said with a smile. "Tournaments are super fun. Team duals are great, especially getting a tough win against a tough opponent. It's fun to be out here. I love what I get to do."
For the Skyhawks, 140-pound Ethan Horner, 170-pound Edward Schmelzer and 182-pound Anthony Peralez won by fall.
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