The Los Lunas Tigers have come close to winning state high school wrestling titles many times before. Ten times, to be exact, they have finished as state runner-up.
The Tigers, who have won five state titles, had some excruciating close calls over the years that broke their hearts. But Saturday at the Class 5A State High School Duals Wrestling Tournament at Rio Rancho High School, they came about as close as they’ll ever get and they felt good about it.
“They almost had it,” said head coach Tom Torres after the Tigers’ 30-24 loss to La Cueva. “That’s what wrestling is. We tried. I feel good. I smile. We’re happy.”
There was one Tiger wrestler who wasn’t feeling happy at all. Senior Eric Kinsey, who lost the championship-deciding final match — pinned by La Cueva’s Luke McPeek with 43 seconds left in the match — was taking the loss especially hard.
“I just gassed out,” he said. “I should have beat him. I had him on his back.
“He’s a good wrestler, you know. But you get someone on their back, you should pin him. I failed to do that.”
With the score tied 24-24 and only the 189-pound match left, the Tigers’ title hopes all came down on the shoulders of Kinsey, who, ironically, missed most of the season with an injury to his right shoulder.
After the 215-pound match was drawn as the first bout of the match, Kinsey knew it all might come down to him. But he wasn’t nervous. “I thought about it from the beginning, but I didn’t feel any pressure. I felt what ever happens, happens,” he said.
But circling the ring like an angry bull before the match, Kinsey was clearly determined.
He charged from the start, but the bigger Bear wrestler kept his cool and built a 5-0 lead after the first period.
In a wild second period that saw Kinsey and McPeek teeter-totter back and forth for near pins, the Los Lunas wrestler emerged with an 11-10 lead. Kinsey extended the lead to 13-10 early in the final period. But with the Tigers about a minute away from their sixth state title, Kinsey ran out of gas.
In an instant, McPeek had Kinsey on his back. And all-too suddenly, the official slammed his hand to the mat.
So close. But not the kind of heartbreaking and somewhat-bitter loss the Tigers experienced when they finished second by a mere two points, 186-184, in 2000 when the tournament was wrestled under a different format. This one left the Tigers feeling happy about the simple fact they were part of it.
“I love it,” Torres said. “Good job to La Cueva. They’re the best.”
“We were just glad to be here – just wish things would have gone the other way,” said senior Wade Freeman.
After all, nobody expected Los Lunas to be there, no less battle the Bears to the end.
Los Lunas placed sixth at the state individual championships won by the Bears a week earlier. La Cueva’s lineup featured four state champions, compared to none from Los Lunas.
Nobody thought the Tigers had a chance – nobody except themselves.
“We knew we could make it this far, no matter what anybody said,” Freeman said. “We knew we had a good duals team. Despite what anybody else said, we knew it was just a matter of working hard and getting there.”
Los Lunas entered the match with a 10-0 record in dual matches this season, including a 38-28 win at La Cueva on Dec. 11.
Gonzalo Garcia gave the Tigers an early grip by pinning Michael La Mendola 51 seconds into the opening match.
La Cueva head coach Bo Wade cited the next two matches as being pivotal wins for the Bears. “Those two — the heavyweight and the 103 — those were two matches I didn’t expect we’d win,” he said.
Even though La Cueva’s Billy Brittain won the state title in the heavyweight division this year, he had lost to Los Lunas’ Juan Cherino the last three times the two met. But Brittain came out the victor this time, 8-2.
At 103, La Cueva’s Robert Scott took an early lead and hung on to beat Jeremiah Chavez, 6-5, in a hard-fought duel.
That tied the score at 6-6, but Los Lunas shot ahead again by winning the next four matches.
Secret weapon Juan Tena (112), who was called up from the junior varsity to wrestle in Los Lunas’ 31-29 win over Del Norte in Friday’s quarterfinal match, sparked the Tigers by flipping Dakota Moore on his back in the second overtime to win 13-10.
Josh Chavez, who normally wrestles at 112 pounds, moved up to 119 and scored a major decision over Josh Michaels. Patrick Aragon (125) followed with a technical fall against Brian Nees, and Gabe Gabriel Hernandez (130) posted a 6-3 decision over Michael Manning to give the Tigers a surprising 21-6 lead halfway through the match.
But La Cueva had three state champions waiting in the wings. The first one, Brandon Strong (135), flexed his muscles by pinning David McCallister in the second round.
After Rion Marcus (140) edged coach Torres’ son Brian, 3-1, Freeman scored an 8-4 win over Adam Bustamonte to put the Tigers ahead, 24-15, with four matches to go.
La Cueva tied the match as state champs Patrick McNeely (152) and Andrew Salas (171) won decisions over Los Lunas’ Robert McCallister and Damon Williams respectively, and John Renfro (160) shut out Bryan Gallogly, 4-0.
While Kinsey lay alone on the mat, understandably despondent over his loss in the culminating match, the rest of the team held their heads high.
“We’re proud. We had a good season,” said Freeman, one of six seniors who had wrestled the final match of their high school careers. “We were 10-1 — just wish it were 11-0.”