STOCKTON – Turlock High senior Hailey Ward stood at the highest platform of the podium, wrestling’s most cherished place, and wore an ear-to-ear grin.
In the bleachers, mother Shawna screamed, “Four-time Masters champion!” Nearby, brother Ethan – more on him later – smiled and clapped. Somewhere in the crowd, father Matt must have enjoyed the scene.
Ward, the flyweight superstar, had just made history.
Earlier Saturday afternoon, Ward (30-3) completed a wrestling sweep by winning her fourth straight Sac-Joaquin Section Masters title, all in the 101-pound class. She became only the fourth girl to do it, a section feat never accomplished to date by a male.
Asked what she does to celebrate big victories, she gave an answer any wrestler can appreciate.
“Usually,” she said, “I just go eat.”
Hunger aside, Ward’s “Mat Slam” keynoted an emotional run of championship matches Saturday afternoon at Stockton Arena. She kicked it off with a clinical 6-0 victory, featuring takedowns in each round, over Leila Sidhu of Del Oro.
But only a few moments before on an adjacent mat, brother Ethan – a Turlock freshman – won his third-place match at 106. When Hailey saw him after her victory, she jumped into his arms.
“Seeing her win made my heart explode,” Ethan said. “I’m right behind her. I’m following her road.”
“He’s trying to be like me,” Hailey countered. “Like brother like sister.”
All this family love plays out in a serious wrestling backdrop. Matt, the father, is a Turlock assistant coach and sits in the corner for Hailey’s matches.
Ward followed a simple formula for four years: Build a lead and never give it up. It’s brought her section glory and a third-place medal at last year’s CIF State Championships, where she’ll be Thursday through Saturday at Bakersfield.
There, she’ll cap an exceptional career, but there is a caveat: Only a state title or appearance in the final will equal what she felt at Masters.
“It was really nerve-racking,” she admitted. “My coaches have trained me very very good. They trained me for this moment since my freshman year.”
Ward’s sweep, which spiced the girls’ first joint appearance with the boys at Masters, triggered more excitement. The Oakdale boys, riding titles by Michael Torres (106), Brayden Abell (113), freshman Jonathan Hernandez (120) and Ceasar Garza (145), challenged Vacaville for team honors.
But Vacaville, which lost to Oakdale for the Division I title at the Section Team Duals, pulled away with important points in the heavyweight classes. The Bulldogs totaled 183 points, six better than the runner-up Mustangs.
“I had it in my mind that if I win, we’ll win the team title,” said Garza, who scored in overtime for a 3-1 decision over Eli Blake of Del Oro in one of the days’ best matches. “The emotions really got going.”
Also taking home titles were Turlock’s Adrian Heras (132), Kendall LaRosa (160) of fourth-place Pitman, Kodiak Stephens of Bret Harte (182) and Donivan Giangregorio (195) of Calaveras.
Besides Ward, the girls in the area were led by champions Lilly Avalos of Pitman (106), Faalia Martinez of Central Catholic (137), Katelynn Cardoza of Ripon (143), 2019 state champion Lilly Freitas of Pitman (150), Valerie Osborne of Oakdale (170) and Alexa Garcia of Sierra (189).
The top six in each weight class will advance to the state meet. Fifty-four wrestlers in the area – 29 boys and 25 girls – will plan trips to Bakersfield’s Mechanics Bank Arena.
Freitas, a sophomore, is one of the nation’s best and has competed on the international stage. She is unbeaten at the high-school level and her dominance at Masters – none of her four wins lasted longer than 1:26 -- burnishes her role as a heavy favorite next week.
“I’m trying to go for Champion of Champions,” Freitas said in reference to the state meet’s MVP award, won last year by fellow Californian and rival Amit Elor (Elor did not compete at the prep level this season).
Orland, a powerhouse from the Northern Section – its girls are annual invitees to the SJS meet – edged Tokay for the team title.
As for Ward, she’ll pack all that family karma for one last trip down Highway 99.
“This is my last shot that I have to win a state title,” she said. “I’m excited and nervous but I’m ready.”
For complete Masters results, visit trackwrestling.com or cifsjs.org.