WEST VALLEY - Gaining a share of the Mid-Valley League title hasn't been all that uncommon for the Sunnyside High School wrestling team. But standing alone atop the conference standings with the league championship trophy in hand has been another thing as of late.
That changed last night, as for the first time in a dozen years the Grizzlies snatched the outright title via a 40-29 victory over the West Valley Rams. It gave Sunnyside a conference best 5-1 record. West Valley, Ellensburg and Prosser concluded league play with second best marks of 4-2.
"Everyone was feeling pretty good when it was over," said George Paulus, who's been at the helm of the Grizzly wrestling program for the past 18 years.
Paulus said his grapplers received a huge boost from the Sunnyside faithful who followed the Grizzlies to West Valley last night.
"We had a big, big Sunnyside crowd," he said. "Our crowd outnumbered West Valley's. It was a favorable environment for our kids."
Of the 14 bouts staged Thursday evening, the Grizzlies won eight of them. There were a total of seven lead changes in the nip-and-tuck match.
All eight of Sunnyside's victories were crucial in Sunnyside's 11-point margin of victory, but probably none more so than the victory gained by 160-pounder Victor Moreno.
Wrestling in the next to the last match of the night, with the Grizzlies clinging to a one-point lead, Moreno came up huge by pinning West Valley's Jake Navarro. Moreno showed little mercy against Navarro, dominating the fleeing Ram before he finished him off with a pin just 37 seconds into the second period.
"That iced the (team) victory for us," said Paulus, explaining that Moreno's pin of Navarro bumped Sunnyside's lead to an insurmountable seven points in the team tally.
Had Moreno not pulled off the win, the Grizzlies had a bit of insurance in the last bout of the night. Frankie Candido, wrestling at 171 lbs., blanked the Rams' Derick Parsons, 9-0, to earn four team points for Sunnyside.
"Frankie's match was kind of anti-climactic, since we already had the team victory sewn up, but it was some nice icing on the cake," said Paulus.
Things looked a bit dismal for the Grizzlies at the outset last night, as West Valley won the first two matches. Pat Barnick, at 189 lbs., opened the evening with a 4-2 win over Sunnyside's Carlos Garza. To Garza's credit, said Paulus, Barnick is one of West Valley's "...big guns, and Carlos found out he can hang with him." Josh Campbell made it two straight wins for the Rams by pinning Grizzly 215-pounder Daniel Cruz. Paulus said Cruz sustaining the fall wasn't that big of a shock, considering the senior Cruz is a first year wrestler and Campbell competed at the State tournament last season.
Sunnyside jumped into the team scoring fray in the third bout of the night, when heavyweight Pete Garza got the Grizzlies on the scoreboard with a fall against highly regarded 275-pounder James Gleason.
"Pete was one of the ones we had to have a win from," said Paulus. "He came through big."
The Grizzlies then took their first lead of the night with freshman Isaac Romero's 20-6 major decision over West Valley 103-pounder Tim Kruse. The mighty mite Romero turned Kruse onto his back twice in the match for near fall points.
West Valley countered at 112 lbs. with a win from Devin Stelter-Moorman. The Ram edged sophomore Ricardo Rivera by a 4-2 score. The victory gave West Valley a brief 12-10 lead.
"It was a battle of two State placers from last season," said Paulus, explaining that Stelter-Moorman placed second at last year's State tourney and Rivera garnered a fourth place finish.
The third lead change of the night occurred in the 119-lb. match. Sunnyside's Steve Sanchez made short work of Danny Green, pinning the Ram a minute and six seconds into the first period. The fall gave the Grizzlies a 16-12 lead.
"The pin by Steve was pretty much expected," said Paulus.
Sunnyside upped its advantage to 22-12 when freshman Joseph Villanueva (125 lbs.) mounted an 11-0 lead against Nevin Crider, then pinned the West Valley grappler about a minute into the final period.
But, the Rams weren't about to fold. Brandon Stelter (130 lbs.) and Tyler Munson (135 lbs.) shot back with a pair of victories to give West Valley a short-lived 23-22 lead. Stelter, whom Paulus described as one of West Valley's big studs, scored a 17-1 technical fall against Greg Burbidge, and Munson, a fifth place finisher at State last season, pinned Juan Salinas in the opening round of their bout.
Omar Magana (140 lbs.) helped shut the door on the Rams' comeback bid by taking a 13-2 major decision from Jacob Moran. Magana flipped Moran onto his back once in the match for near fall points. The win by Magana got the Grizzlies back the lead, at 26-23.
Again, though, West Valley countered. Wrestling at 145 lbs., Mark Lagerquist pinned Sunnyside's Zeke Galvan to give the Rams a 29-26 lead. Unbeknownst to the West Valley wrestlers, it would be their last taste of victory.
Michael Graham (152 lbs.) was the first to leave a sour taste in the Rams' mouth, as he scored a 10-1 major decision over West Valley's Eddie Reeves. Graham's victory got Sunnyside the lead for good, at 30-29. Moreno and Candido closed out the night with their two victories to account for the final 40-29 score.
Although Paulus has five outright Mid-Valley League titles to his credit, and three shared titles in the 18 years he has been Grizzly head coach, this year's conference crown is perhaps the sweetest.
"It was kind of cool this year because, other than the three kids who went to State last year and returned this season, we basically had to put the team together from the ground up," said Paulus.
In looking ahead to tomorrow (Saturday), Paulus said he'll be taking 14 of his wrestlers to the JV postseason qualifying tournament in Selah. Of the 14 junior varsity grapplers who'll be vying for a top three finish, which would advance them to the Sub-regional tourney in Spokane on Feb. 4-5, Paulus said he believes nine of them have a realistic chance at advancing.
"You never know at these JV qualifiers," he said. "Some kids you think will advance don't, and others you don't think have a good shot end up moving on. We'll see."