PREP WRESTLING: Bear River takes aim at PVL title |

PREP WRESTLING: Bear River takes aim at PVL title

Bear River head coach Kevin Figueroa, left, and coach Jeff Danieli, look on during a match earlier this season.
Photo by Brian O’Brien |

With a perfect 3-0 record in Pioneer Valley League duals, the Bear River Bruins wrestling squad certainly isn’t letting anyone push them around.

For the first time since 2012, the Bruins knocked off Placer (42-33) and have also beaten Center and won by forfeit versus Foothill, setting up a crucial matchup at Lincoln (3-0) today with the winner clinching at least a share of the PVL title.

“It’s coming down to coaching,” said Bear River head coach Kevin Figueroa, who added another coach to his staff this season. “Jeff Danieli has been helping out tremendously. We’ve also had our past wrestlers coming in and helping out throughout the time so we’re getting great, focused mentoring. They’re learning the structure of moves and applying them.”

This season the Bruins are led by three seniors, Jon Good (182-pound weight class), Drew Engberson (152) and Reed Johnson (145), but the team also boasts experience with returning junior Noah Danieli (108). But, the majority of the team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores, which speaks volumes for where the program is headed.

“In the beginning of the year we separated the practice with ‘A’ wrestlers and ‘B’ wrestlers,” said Figueroa. “The experienced would be with inexperienced, half the practice working with them, then we split the second half so the experienced are advancing their moves and the inexperienced are getting more coaching. We’re at a point where we aren’t splitting practices anymore. Everybody is there, getting more focused, more attention and drive. We’re hoping that everything we’re doing starts them peaking at PVL.”

Over the last few years, Bear River’s wrestling program has developed from a period of dwindling participation to being a league title contender, largely thanks to great coaching and recruiting from Magnolia’s feeder program. With a better foundation laid beforehand the transition to high school is becoming more successful.

“Keeping them motivated is just keeping them working,” said assistant coach Danieli. “Showing them some new technique, letting them know that they’re actually progressing and getting better is a big one too because a lot of these kids they’ll wrestle and they’ll get beat, they’ll get beat, they’ll get beat and they don’t think they’re improving because they’re looking at their win-loss record. When you actually watch them wrestle, if I could show them a video from day one until now then they can see, ‘oh yeah, we’re learning something.’”

The Bruins began conditioning in November and have since wrestled in five tournaments, sharpening their skills along the way as they battled competition in Oakdale, El Camino, Wheatland, The Tim Brown Invitational (Sacramento) and No Guts No Glory (Rocklin), which was the team’s most impressive performance where it took second place out of 48 teams.

“They understand more about wrestling,” explained Danieli. “That was kind of my part was to bring them and actually teach them about wrestling itself, not just to teach them a move about how to twist somebody up like a pretzel. I give them the understanding of what positioning is. People think it’s a gladiator sport, the guy that’s the biggest, the fastest and the most athletic is going to win, but that’s not always the case. If you’re in the wrong position you’re going to get beat.”

The sport comes with its fair share of ups and downs, instilled with moments of strength and weakness, but with every match and practice session, regardless of any outcome, comes a valuable wave of experience each individual can ride to greater heights as they progress.

“I got thrown to my back quickly in the first round (against Placer), but then I came back and got the pin,” said sophomore Travis Carpenter (160), who has been wrestling for five years now. “I just take my opportunity when it comes. If there’s a shot there I’ll take it. Sometimes I’ll just counter wrestle and let them be the aggressors. I don’t take the wrestlers lightly. I take them all the same pretty much, even if I know they’re good or not.”

The team’s training regiment goes well beyond practices after school and breaking down moves on the mat, it’s also about what goes on the table at meals.

“I’ll eat breakfast and have a little snack for lunch, then I’ll wait to wrestling to weigh myself and that determines if I’ll have a little dinner or a regular dinner, depending on my weight,” said junior Nate Araiza (128), who joined the team this season after moving from Southern California. “I like it up here a lot, a lot smaller school than what I was used to. Everyone knows who I am and we’re all friends. My favorite finishes have the arm bar. Any combination with the arm bar has been working out pretty well, been drilling that a little harder.”

With as much success as the team has had thus far, it comes as no surprise to junior Noah Danieli, whose six years of experience has led the way with several exceptional performances at the team’s tournaments throughout the season, finishing in second place at Oakdale, third at El Camino, first at Wheatland and second at Rocklin.

“We knew we had the potential to do as well as we’re doing so far this year,” said Noah Danieli, whose season ended last year at the Sac-Joaquin Divisional Tournament where he injured his elbow. “We wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t put in the hard work at practice. (Tournaments) are like a 32-man bracket, not in all of them, but in a majority it was a pretty big bracket. I just go out and try and be the best I can be. I always just imagine that this match is going to be my last match so I just wrestle as hard as I can. I’ve definitely made a dramatic improvement in my bottom game. Last year I would never go bottom because I would never be able to get out or score points.”

The overall perception for the team is that anything is possible as long as everyone continues to show up and give it everything they have. With teammates pushing each other to the limit and positive reinforcement from coaches and peers, there appears to be no ceiling for Bear River.

“We’re doing really well,” said senior Engberson, who has been wrestling for three years. “We’re really stacked and we’re strong from 108s all the way to heavyweights. I thought we were going to be good, but not as good as going to Sections and having a shot at a title. Kevin is very kind, yet he pushes you at the same time to be your best and live up to your expectations. I’m strong, learning to be patient and being humble, not worrying about the fans or anything, just me and my team.”

The Bruins’ 2015-2016 roster has only two gaps in its weight classes, which the team has been able to overcome with a flexible approach, moving bodies up or down based on sizing up the competition and making adjustments prior to the official weigh-ins.

“We try and look at the other team’s lineup and fix our lineup accordingly,” said Good, who took fourth place at Wheatland and also won his first PVL match of his high school career this season. “It’s a good flux of weight. I’m hoping to make it to Masters. I didn’t make weight for League Tournament last year. I’m a pretty good leader, someone (the team) can follow and a good pace-keeper for the duals.”

Bear River hits the road for a 6 p.m. dual today at Lincoln and wraps up its regular season next week (TBD) at home for Senior Night versus Colfax.

Brian Shepard is a freelance sports writer who contributes to The Union regularly.

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