‘I’m going to win’
He had never wrestled a varsity match, but there he was stepping onto the mat with the entire program’s legacy hanging in the balance of his first bout.
The only thing standing between the Nevada Union Miners and their 11th-consecutive league championship and 71st-straight Capital Athletic League victory was this heavyweight match.
Nevada Union led Casa Roble 31-25, meaning NU’s fortunes had fallen into the hands of the freshman now toeing the line.
The fans weren’t the only ones on the edge of their seats.
“He came in as a freshman and couldn’t beat the varsity guy,” said NU assistant coach Gary Sumner, recalling that 2001 dual match. “He’d stayed late after practice all season long, just to beat the varsity guy. And the week before Casa, he beats him. So there’s this freshman out there with all of that at stake.
“We were terrified.”
If only Miner fans had known then what they do now.
“All of that and then I pinned the kid,” said Wade Sauer, now a Nevada Union senior and currently the No. 1-ranked heavyweight in the state of California. “I’m pretty good at blocking out the pressure. I go out there to win. I know I’m going to win. And that’s when you get the really good matches, when you get two guys out there who both know they’re not going to lose – both knowing they’re going to get their hand raised.
“That’s how I wrestle – to get my hand raised.”
No stranger to success
Sauer’s right arm has been held high quite a few times since that first varsity victory – in fact, 99 times in the past two years of his high school career. He produced a 55-2 record as a 215-pound junior and placed third at the California State Wrestling Championships – where he returns this week with a 44-3 mark in the heavyweight division.
And don’t think he’s just happy to be Bakersfield bound.
“My goal is to win it,” Sauer said.
That was also the case a year ago, though he showed up in Stockton unranked by The California Wrestler Newsletter, which serves as the state’s top wrestling prep poll. He proved his own philosophy on polling – they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on – to be true as he worked his way through the 215-pound bracket to the semifinals.
And even though he heads into this week’s tournament tagged with the No. 1 ranking, Sauer still doesn’t care for such polls.
“Rankings are still just somebody else’s guess,” he said after a workout at NU Tuesday. “I don’t think anything of them – until the final rankings come out after state.”
After claiming his second-straight Sac-Joaquin Section championship last Saturday, Sauer now turns his focus to his first-round match at state Friday. He will square off with La Sierra junior Travis Ewart, who finished in sixth place at the Southern Section Championships.
Not an instant winner
Sauer joked that his first wrestling experience wasn’t that initial varsity match three years ago.
That came when he was a 10-year-old cradling pigs while his father castrated them on their North San Juan Ranch.
“They put up quite a fight,” he said.
As did he in the early stages of his high school career, though he wasn’t exactly an overnight success following that first win. He didn’t advance out of the league tournament in his freshman season.
“After my sophomore season – I should have gone to state then – my coach said I needed to be more coachable and that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by myself.”
That coach, NU’s Shane Valdez, came onto the Miner wrestling mats with quite the credentials – a California State wrestling champion from Calvary Chapel (Santa Ana), after two runner-up finishes, and a three-time All American 125-pounder at perennial collegiate power the University of Oklahoma.
Yet, it didn’t seem to be enough to impress Sauer.
Valdez said the then-sophomore’s lack of respect toward him had the coach actually contemplating cutting Sauer.
Then a change in Sauer’s attitude happened toward the end of the year, something which Valdez still can’t quite put his finger on, which put the pair on the same page at last.
“It was sudden. He went from a kid I couldn’t stand to a kid who asked, ‘Coach, can you help me with this? Coach, can you help me with that?'” Valdez said. “It blew me away. From that point he was a completely different kid. I knew this kid was going to go places because he changed his attitude and started to listen.”
The fact that he was being coached by a light-weight wrestler, suddenly didn’t seem so odd. Sauer found that Valdez’s skills actually could be parlayed into an advantage against his heavyweight opponents.
“I’m quicker than all of them,” Sauer said. “Most heavyweights aren’t the best athletes. They’re the biggest but most of them are slow, though there are always exceptions.”
His speed, through Valdez’s tutoring on technique, became his strength, though the 6-foot, 5-inch 240-pounder isn’t exactly lacking in the power category.
“(Valdez) has helped me the whole way,” Sauer said. “The reason I’m one of the best guys is because of the techniques he’s taught me. Shane’s a great guy. We have a great relationship on and off the mat.”
A rough return
It couldn’t have been too long after Sauer lost 2-0 to Hogan’s Marcus Moore in a Sac-Joaquin Section subsection tournament semifinal two weeks ago that the rest of the state’s top heavyweights found themselves in a festive mood.
Sauer had been nearly untouchable until Moore pulled off the upset of his career.
The boxscore of the match didn’t mention Sauer had been battling the effects of full-blown pneumonia along with an allergic reaction to the medication prescribed to fight it.
All the said heavyweights saw was the score:
Moore 2, Sauer 0.
“Those other wrestlers didn’t know how sick Wade really was. They didn’t even know he was sick at all,” Valdez said. “They were thinking, ‘Oh, this kid’s beatable’, whereas before a lot of them didn’t think Wade was even capable of being taken down.”
Sauer, who along with seven NU teammates entered the Sac-Joaquin Section Tournament at Folsom High School Friday, was on the mend and was looking for a fight.
“It’s been several weeks (since I got sick),” Sauer said. “The first set of antibiotics I had an allergic reaction to, and the second set didn’t clear things all the way up. I’m on the third set now and I’m finally starting to kick it.”
There were two other losses this season, one during his third-place finish at the Reno Tournament of Champions – which earned him High School All-American honors – and another at the Foothill Tournament. Though he’s always disappointed by any loss, it was the latter of the two that really stuck in Sauer’s craw.
He was leading Turlock’s Ryan Lorton when he made a mistake on a pinning combination that led to his own fall.
“I was up by 10 points and made a little mistake … and he pinned me,” Sauer said. “I did take him too lightly.”
Still, Valdez said, a valuable lesson was learned.
“You can’t get sloppy against anyone, especially a heavyweight,” Valdez said. “If you get put on your back against a heavyweight, it’s very difficult to get off your back.
“I don’t think he will agree, but I definitely think it was a good thing to learn a lesson like that now instead of in the state tournament. Because if it happened at state, all of your goals and dreams are gone.”
A lot still ahead
Win or lose, Sauer’s high school career comes to an end this weekend, but that won’t mean the end of his competitive wrestling. Valdez said the likes of Iowa State, Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma State – and his own alma mater, Oklahoma – are among the schools currently recruiting him, including all of California’s Division I powers.
“I haven’t been a coach for a long time, but I have been around wrestling for a long time,” Valdez said. “And I’ve seen a lot of heavyweights, a lot of good heavyweights – state champion heavyweights – and none of them are going to go to college with what this kid has. They don’t have the potential Wade has.
“He wrestles like a little wrestler and he weighs 250 pounds. You just don’t see that with a heavyweight and when you do see it, it’s with a great heavyweight.”
Sauer wouldn’t say which way he’s leaning, but said he’s looking forward to making the most of his official visits to campuses across the country once his senior season ends.
“It’s fun,” he said of being recruited. “I’m going to enjoy taking my trips to go and visit the schools and see part of the country,” said Sauer, who is interested in making a career of out either law enforcement, forestry or wildlife management. “My senior year is going fast, but I’m not going to be sad about my high school career being over. I’m going to keep wrestling in college. I’ll just keep wrestling.”
Thanks to his third-place finish last season, Sauer’s already assured a slot in the high school nationals to be held March 31 in Cleveland. Beyond that there will be plenty of non-prep opportunities to compete, as was the case last summer when he was a member of Team California, wrestling in the Junior National Dual Championships in Oklahoma and the Junior National Individual Championships in North Dakota.
A parting shot
According to a California Interscholastic Federation survey, 22,007 athletes across the state were members of a high school wrestling team in 2003. With 14 weight divisions, that might mean an estimated 1,500 wrestlers in each weight class began this season with the same goal as Wade Sauer:
To be the last one standing.
Valdez, as previously mentioned, did just that.
“At that time of my life, it was the greatest sports moment I’d ever experienced,” said Valdez of his being crowned CIF 119-pound champion in 1994. “It was a lot of things. It was emotional, because you know it’s always ‘I think I can do it, I think I can do it’ and then two years in a row I came up short.
“It was a relief, because I wasn’t a three-time runner-up. It was a great feeling – all those extra practices, all that hard work, it all paid off. Hard work does pay off. There I was with my hand finally raised and I thought ‘This is what it’s all been for. No matter what anyone says, I did it and all that hard work was worth it.
“I want Wade to experience that feeling, because he’s put in that hard work. He deserves that sense of accomplishment.”
When the spotlight falls on the finals in Bakersfield Saturday night, Sauer fully expects to be one of two heavyweights to be toeing the line for the 2004 state title – though being one of the final two isn’t exactly the goal, here.
“It’s really not something I even think about,” Sauer said. “I wrestle to win – every tournament I go to, every one I face. I never think about being one of the last two standing, because I expect to win that match.
“I never think of it as ‘Wow, I’m one of the top two in the state out of thousands in my weight class.’ If I lost, then maybe I’d think that way. Until then, it’s just one more person I have to beat.”
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With a balanced offensive attack and a strong defensive effort, the Nevada Union football team went on the road Friday night and knocked off Napa, 33-14.