Stanback Bulldogs wrestling ends Orange Chargers dynasty to win OPAC Championship

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Updated: February 23, 2022

The term “dynasty” becomes more arbitrary from generation to generation.

In the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls earned the moniker after winning six NBA Championships in eight seasons. But could it really compare to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics of the late 1950s-1960s, which won eleven world titles in 13 years?

The San Francisco 49ers was the first team to win five Super Bowls. They did it in a span of 14 years behind quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young from 1981-1995. For much of that period, the New England Patriots were as far away from a Super Bowl as Hillsborough is to the moon. No one knew that Tom Brady would take New England to six World Championships in 16 years in the 21 century.

By any definition of the term, Orange Middle School had a wrestling dynasty. More to the point, Stanford wrestling had a dynasty, long before the Orange County School Board changed its name.

The string of dominance started in the 1980s under Coach Lou Geary and continued under Aaron Carr into the new millennium. The Chargers won 20 consecutive Orange Person Athletic Conference Championships. They had 18 consecutive undefeated seasons and 12 straight years without losing a league match.

It all ended last month at the hands of the Stanback Bulldogs.

In a standard Hollywood script, the Bulldogs would have defeated its crosstown rivals with the entire dual match, conference championship and, well, dynasty boiling down to one final one-on-one individual bout.

In reality, Stanback’s win had all of the drama of a mid-1980s Super Bowl.

Stanback defeated the Chargers 73-18 to earn its first wrestling championship in school history. It was also the first time ever the Bulldogs defeated the Chargers on the wrestling mat.

“I think we had the advantage of a continuation of coaching,” said Stanback wrestling coach Jonah Hill. “We had a lot of sixth graders who were wrestling two years ago. They did a great job as 8th graders in getting a buzz about the program and talking to their friends. That created an advantage for us.”

Obviously, Stanback waited an eternity to beat OMS. The wait to simply compete, not just for Stanback but all local middle schools in all sports, was interminable after the pandemic.

While high school sports steadily returned to action in the 2020-2021 academic year, albeit with unorthodox schedules and curtailed attendance, there were no sports in middle schools across Orange County.

One of the last middle school events before the shutdown took place in front of a standing room only crowd on January 10, 2020. Stanback, under then-head coach Grant Gibson, and Stanford (under its former name) met on the mat in front of a packed grandstand at Bulldog Gymnasium. The Chargers squeezed out a 47-46 win, but not before Stanback started strong when Mason Pierce scored a pin in the opening match.

While the subsequent long, monotonous days without competition during the lockdown dragged on, that match never left the minds of Hill and Jose Hidalgo, who were assistants to Gibson at the time.

They thought they would end Stanford’s streak two years ago.

“That was a long of fun,” Hill said. “I think we got a lot of bad calls that night and I said as much to the (referee) booking agents. That was a one-point meet and I thought it could go either way. That was one of those nights where we were happy with the effort the kids put out. It was a clear indication that we were on the right track.”

This season, Stanback’s Ethan Montgomery went undefeated competing at 141 and 148 pounds. He was among four Bulldogs to win individual OPAC Championships.

“He wrestled the best kid in each of those weight classes against every school and beat them all,” Hill said. “He’s a very impressive kid. He was average as a 6th grader. I know that, as a student, he’s very smart. He has a good mind for wrestling and he surprised us all the way he developed this year. And he picks things up very quickly.”

Pierce won the OPAC 85-pound championship, ending a three-year run on the team.

“He got a lot of matches as a sixth grader because he wrestled in a smaller weight class,” Hill said. “That’s rare. But Mason worked extra hard this year. He was reliable. We asked so many kids on this team to do completely unreasonable things, and they still do it.”

Among those who transformed the most from the start of the season was Thalia Paterno, who finished 2nd in her weight class. Paterno spent most of the year as a backup until the waning days of the season. Then Hill had to juggle his lineup because of weight cuts and departures, and suddenly Paterno found herself competing against some of the top wrestlers in the league in the OPAC Tournament.

Paterno reached the semifinals at 92-pounds, where she prevailed in double overtime against a competitor from Northern Middle School despite suffering a neck injury in the third period. After escaping in the second :30 overtime period, Paterno won the match with a takedown.

“She was a sixth grader who hadn’t started any matches all season,” Hill said. “She wrestled so well. During one of the breaks in the match, I noticed her neck was hurting. I asked if she wanted to go out, but she wrestled for the championship.”

Durvin Lopez claimed the championship at 170 pounds, which surprised Hill, who labeled him a “darkhorse.” Lopez may have been a surprise, but he was also studious.

“He told us at the end of his championship match that he studied every single one of his opponents,” Hidalgo said. “In his last match, Durvin said every time his opponent had a tendency to bring his arm up. Every time he brought his arm up, he went in for a takedown. And it worked. I didn’t know that Durvin studied his opponents that way.”

Diego Vera Palma won an individual championship, though Hill said it was a journey that could have ended at any point during the season.

“He tried to quit about four or five times,” Hill said. “He doubts himself sometimes. I’m so happy that he gave himself to chance to perform to his ability. I think towards the end of the season he realized he had a talent for the sport and should stick with it. Once he got past that stuff, he performed at his best.”

Stanback had 13 8th graders overall. it was a journey that ended with a championship the school waited a lifetime for.

“I think every year we have a chance and every year we train as if it is a possibility,” Hill said. “It’s never been about the championship, honestly. It’s been about the idea of doing something very difficult. We’ve always been motivated by this idea that we believe it’s possible and there’s a lot of wisdom in approaching a goal like you can achieve it. Whether you actually achieve the goal matters very little. It’s about the growth you make when you work for your goal.”

Like Orange Middle did, Hidalgo hopes the middle school wrestling dynasty will now shift to the southern end of town.

“They have more motivation to continue in the right path,” Hidalgo said. “I think we’re going to gather more students to join our team. I hope next year we’ll have a bigger players.”

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