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No sweat: Gregori's Vergara stays unbeaten, leads nine into state semifinals

Ron Agostini
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BAKERSFIELD – Liliana Vergara’s unbeaten season and a berth in the semifinals twisted in the wind like an unpredicted storm.

The Gregori High senior led 1-0 but Amara Devericks of Corona didn’t pay much respect. Vergara was face-down on the mat for most of the final two rounds as Devericks waited for a mistake.

Many matches go this way at the CIF State Wrestling Championships especially in the later rounds. The 170-pound quarterfinal Friday between Vergara and Devericks slow-boiled into a battle of wills: Who’s stronger? Who will take the chance?

“I beat her at Freakshow (in Las Vegas). I dominated, but she was ready this time,” Vergara said. “She was putting on the pressure. I tried to stay focused.”

The referee charged Vergara for stalling and awarded Devericks a match-tying point with less than a minute left. But Vergara wasn’t stalling. She chose that moment, in fact, to attack.

The 2018 state finalist somehow found an opening and scored the takedown to win 3-1. Just like that – from flat on her stomach to getting her hand raised -- Vergara improved to 29-0 and moved into Saturday morning’s prime-time semifinals.

And to think it was decided not necessarily by inspiration, but perspiration?

“She started to get frustrated and we were both sweating,” Vergara said. “She kind of slid over the top.”

Such little things swell in importance during state wrestling’s annual summit meeting. Rabobank Arena has rocked to a different vibe this week as the boys were joined by the girls for the first time.  One thing that never changes, however, is the intensity.

Vergara highlights nine semifinalists, six of them female, from the area.

Pitman freshman Lilly Freitas (143), 32-0, continued her strong form along with seniors Mikayla Vega of Escalon (111) and Tagivale Vaifale of Pacheco (235). Two juniors, Oakdale’s Faalia Martinez (137) and Alexa Garcia of Sierra (160) showed their best at the perfect time.

They’ll be joined by boys semifinalists Michael Jeffus of Turlock (285), Izzy Tubera of Pitman (113) and Oakdale’s Brayden Abell (106).

Jeffus, fifth in the state last year (so was Vega), has burnished his credentials as one of California’s most lethal heavyweights. To start the third round, he burst from the bottom position for a quick takedown, resulting in a 4-3 quarterfinals win over hometown favorite Josiah Hill of Bakersfield.

Abell, a sophomore, strung together his fourth win in two days by stopping Devin Garcia of James Logan 3-0. Nursing a 1-0 lead with 22 seconds left and both wrestlers up, Abell navigated away from danger and clinched it in the final seconds.

“I was thinking about not letting him take me down. I kept trying and got my shot in,” said Abell, who braces for a major challenge in the semifinals against 2018 state champion Richard Figueroa of Selma.

Tubera (29-3) defeated intra-city rival William Giron of Turlock 4-0, his third victory over Giron in the last four weeks, in the quarters.

For all the area’s success, there was some counterpoint.  Oakdale senior Gabe Martinez (170) and sophomore teammate Henry Porter (132), both state finalists a year ago, fell in the quarterfinals.

Martinez was pinned by top-seeded Trey Munoz of Trabuco Hills while Porter was victimized by a reversal with less than 30 seconds left and was beaten 6-5 by Jose Fernandez III of Upper Lake.

Faalia Martinez, Gabe’s sister, blanked Sophie Muse of McClatchy 4-0. That avenged a 4-2 loss to Muse in last week’s Sac-Joaquin Section Masters final.

Vaifale, who’s won all three matches by fall, hopes to do the same. Semifinalist opponent Tavi Heidelberk, the defending champion from McClatchy, pinned Vaifale last week at Masters.

Thirteen from the area, out of 53 qualifiers, have reached the final day. Hailey Ward of Turlock (101), Gracie Goldsmith-Ding of Argonaut (143), Gabe Martinez and Porter will not return home empty-handed. Goldsmith-Ding will become her school’s first state wrestling medalist.

As for Devericks, she answered her disappointment against Vergara with two back-to-business pins -– her third and fourth of the week -– in consolation.  It was as if she reminded Vergara how close she was to victory.

But Vergara already knew.