Wildcats sophomore Joseph Pavlov-Ramirez took second place in the 126-pound weight class in the Central Coast Section Masters Finals on Feb. 17 at Watsonville High School. Photo by Jonathan Natividad.

In Greg Varela’s distinguished 22-year career coaching high school and club wrestling, he’s never had a team that’s made such dramatic improvement as this year’s Los Gatos High squad. 

That’s why Varela beamed with pride about the Wildcats’ performance in the Central Coast Section Masters Finals on Feb. 17 at Watsonville High. They finished as the runner-up (207 points) in the team standings for the third consecutive season—and for the sixth time overall—to go with CCS titles in 1969 and 1970.

“I couldn’t be happier with the team’s performance this (past) weekend,” he said. “We lost a lot of seniors last year, and we came back and had a team with a lot of underclassmen of freshmen and sophomores who stepped in and wrestled great. Most of our team overperformed and outperformed their seed.”

Although the Wildcats fell shy of the program best 228.5 points they recorded last year in the Masters Finals and the 217 points in 2022, they had been on track to surpass both marks.

That was until standout junior and Stanford-commit Dylan Pile was shut down for the rest of the season by pneumonia. 

Despite the absence of Pile—the defending CCS Masters Finals champion at 160 pounds—they still managed to top 200 points in the CCS Finals for just the third time in program history.

Los Gatos brought 12 wrestlers to the Masters Finals, and all 12 medaled (sixth place or better).

The list includes junior Colton Hernandez (sixth at 106), freshman Cruz Arena (sixth at 113 pounds), sophomore Antonio Rodriguez (second at 120), sophomore Joseph Pavlov-Ramirez (second at 126), freshman Tyler Tonella (fourth at 132), senior Timmy Murabito (second at 138), senior Teddy Smith (third at 144), senior EJ Parco (first at 150), sophomore Lucas Pannell (second at 157), junior Stuart Cornelius (fifth at 175), sophomore Ojas Shastri (fourth at 190) and junior Franklin White (fifth at 215). 

By virtue of their top-three finishes, Parco, Rodriguez, Murabito, Pavlov-Ramirez, Smith and Pannell earned berths to the CIF State Championships, Feb. 22-24 at Mechanics Bank Arena in Bakersfield. As expected, Parco rolled to his third consecutive CCS title, this time at 150 pounds. 

He’ll earn a top-three seed in the CIF State Championships in his quest to win arguably the toughest weight class of any state tournament in the country. Rodriguez is also a solid bet to go deep at State, as he finished as the runner-up at 113 pounds last year. 

Varela said the two elite-level wrestlers are right where they need to be for State. While Parco and Rodriguez are the headliners, Varela loves this year’s squad because he’s never had so many different contributors in his six years as the Los Gatos coach. 

The CCS Masters was a prime example of several of his athletes winning close matches that could’ve gone either way. 

“We had so many guys just wrestle their hearts out and win these gut-check matches,” Varela said. “Where we came from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, is night and day. Those same guys who were going 0-2 in frosh-soph are placing at CCS tournaments just two months later. I can’t tell you how proud I am and excited for the future, for these kids’ future.”

Arena went 0-2 in the season-opening Harbor frosh-soph tournament and followed that up with a fifth-place finish at the junior varsity level. Talk about an inauspicious start. After the JV tournament, Arena made it his mission to take his mat game to another level.  

From there, Arena made rapid-fire progress, earning his way to the varsity level. 

“He came in and asked what he needed to do to get better,” Varela said. “I told him to be consistent, don’t miss practice and if you’re willing to work hard, it can happen. But there is a price to pay and he paid it. He said he wanted to get serious about wrestling, wanted to improve—and he did it.”

Varela was effusive in his praise for Smith, who came up one win short of placing in last year’s CCS Masters Finals. Determined to not let history repeat, Smith dedicated himself in the off-season and made dramatic progress, resulting in a spot in the CIF State Championships. 

“I’m so happy for Teddy, so proud of him,” Varela said. “Teddy is a kid who last year went up two weight classes for us, and when he came up a match short of placing at CCS, he was devastated—cried his eyes out. He worked all spring and seven weeks of camp in the summer time. He was so committed that his parents had to call me so I could talk to him and convince him that he could go on vacation with his family in Europe, because he didn’t want to miss a week of practice. 

“I said, ‘Teddy, you have to go. If you don’t go, I’m going in place of you.’ I said this before, that it doesn’t always work out. You can do everything right and sometimes it doesn’t work out. But for Teddy, it worked out. He paid his dues.”

Shastri is another feel-good story. He barely qualified for the Masters Finals, having placed seventh in the CCS Northern Regional a week earlier. Shastri lost his opening match in the Masters by major decision but rebounded to win four straight contests before falling in the third-place match. 

Of note, Shastri defeated four opponents who he had already lost to earlier in the season in a stirring Masters run. 

“Ojas worked his tail off but had a rough year (coming into Masters),” Varela said. “But he showed character, and that’s what I’m most proud of for Ojas and about this team. A bunch of these guys are not child prodigies, but they do everything asked of them. They pay the price, and they do their job. It’s a commitment and the payoff shows now and at State.

“Anything great takes a long time to get, and I think kids these days are so conditioned with the internet, iPad. Everything is instant gratification all the time, that whenever something hard comes along, our kids are so conditioned to just give up and try something else. And in the sport of wrestling, you have to crawl before you walk; you have to walk before you run; and it just takes a long time—and it’s a long process to see results. But if you see it through, you’re so prepared for life and ups-and-downs.”

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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