Craving a section crown

After eight runner-up section finishes, Del Oro grapplers have depth and experience to go all the way
By: Eric J. Gourley, Journal Sports Writer
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LOOMIS — Corey Johnson is convinced this is the year. Despite 11 Sierra Foothill League banners in 15 years and eight runner-up finishes in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs, perennial wrestling powerhouse Del Oro has never won a section title. “We’re pretty sure that we’re going to win the section,” said Johnson, an impressive senior leading the way for the Golden Eagles at 135 pounds. “The team is wrestling really well right now.” Co-coaches Clint Madden and Dave Sanchez are aiming even higher. “We have a goal to win the whole section, not just the Division II section, which is pretty much the ultimate,” Madden said. “We think we can win the whole thing if we can put it together. It’s definitely a team with really high aspirations.” Johnson, fellow senior Connor Morgan and junior Jesse Stafford are all ranked third in the state in their respective weight classes. Johnson and Morgan are two of nine seniors wrestling for the Eagles this season. They return from a team that claimed its second straight SFL crown last year before falling to Ponderosa in the section semifinals. Oak Ridge downed Ponderosa to win the section title. The Eagles beat Oak Ridge 40-30 in the finals of the Natomas Nighthawk Duals last month, a positive early-season measuring stick. “Beating the defending section champions gave us an idea of what this team was made of immediately,” Sanchez said. “The section title, after beating Oak Ridge, I know that we expect it now, but we still have to earn it. We may have beat them early in the season but that doesn’t mean that much in the end of the season. The early one is just a token.” Still, the token motivated Johnson and his teammates. “We were expecting Oak Ridge to be No. 1 in the section and then we went out and beat them,” he said. “It boosted our confidence a lot.” So did the Eagles’ second place finish at the Iolani Invitational in Hawaii last week, where they fell to Punahuo 36-34 in the finals. Del Oro’s middle weight wrestlers — Morgan (130 pounds), Johnson, Stafford (140) and sophomore Kevin Burrage (145) — all went undefeated at the tournament. “We have a lot of experience,” Sanchez said. Freshman Austin Branum has compiled a 14-3 record as a surprise at 125 pounds. “Austin was really accomplished before he came into high school,” Sanchez said. “He was a two-time national champion as a kid wrestler. He’s just been such a great addition for us.” After finishing fourth in the state as a sophomore two years ago, Morgan missed his junior season with a torn meniscus. He had the tissue removed after another injury over the summer and has been wrestling at full strength since, Sanchez said. “I don’t have to worry about my knee getting hurt so I can get into positions that I don’t have to worry about,” said Morgan, who is 16-1. “I don’t have to hold back anymore.” Johnson has been stellar and is undefeated at 18-0. “He’s just fantastic this year,” Sanchez said. “He hasn’t given up one offensive point, which means he’s only let guys go as escapes, that’s it. No one has scored on him, no one has taken him down, no reversals or near-falls or anything. He has completely dominated competition.” Stafford, a returning section finalist and state qualifier, is also 18-0, while Burrage is 17-2. Casey Schumacher, the 145-pound section champion last year, has lost only three matches at 152 pounds this season. Senior Tyler Reynolds (160) and sophomore Derrick Luque (171) have also shown early promise. Senior Devin Whisler is 14-5 at 189 pounds, while senior Justin McGuire is 10-7 at 215 and heavyweight Bobby Gallagher sports a 15-4 record. “We have a strong returning core,” Madden said. “We have four guys who have wrestled in the state meet already and we’ve added a couple of real tough kids. All of our kids returning from last year have come back tougher. They started working really hard at the end of last season to show major improvement across the board and they haven’t let up yet.” The Eagles are still putting the pieces together in the light weight classes, where the team has traditionally been strong. “We’re still moving some guys around,” Sanchez said of the 103-, 112- and 119-pound classes. “We’ve got some real youth there.” A week after winning the Natomas duals, Del Oro took third at the Zinkin Classic in Buchanan. After opening SFL with a home dual against Oakmont Thursday, the Eagles hope to follow up their Hawaii performance with another strong effort at the Nor-Cal Championships in Anderson this weekend, where they placed fifth last year. “That’s why we travel the state, to see all the best guys,” Sanchez said. “We have to see everybody from every section so that when we get to the state meet we know who they are and we have a good idea how to beat them, if we haven’t beat them.”