NCS wrestling: Newman’s Klee takes aim at championship

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Cardinal Newman's P.J. Klee wrestles with a coach during practice. (Photo by John Burgess, The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman’s P.J. Klee wrestles with a coach during practice. (Photo by John Burgess, The Press Democrat)

Nearly 140 local athletes will be taking the mat at the North Coast Section boys wrestling championships Friday and Saturday at Newark Memorial High School. Some of them have bigger trophies in their sights.

“There’s a lot of little successes within the season, but I guess not winning state would be a very big disappointment, for me and for a lot of people around me I know,” admitted Cardinal Newman senior P.J. Klee, considered the dominant high school wrestler in the Redwood Empire this year. “They want me to win, and I want to win as well.”

His coach does not contradict him.

“I see him winning the state title,” Newman’s Francisco Manriquez said. “I don’t have any doubts there. I feel like he’s proven himself already.”

That’s a lot of pressure heaped upon the shoulders of a 152-pound high school athlete. It has been eight years since an Empire wrestler won a CIF state championship; Healdsburg’s Andrew Rogers was the last to do it, winning at 145 pounds in 2006. Then again, Klee came to Cardinal Newman with through-the-roof expectations, and has never backed away from them.

Return to the Empire

A Rohnert Park native, Klee spent his first two years of high school competing at Blair Academy, a New Jersey boarding school with a nationally renowned wrestling program. He moved back home midway through his junior year, after a coaching change at Blair, but was unable to wrestle at Newman for a year due to eligibility rules.

Now fully integrated, Klee has invigorated the program. Cardinal Newman wrestling was an afterthought before Manriquez arrived three years ago, with only eight or 10 boys on the team. Since then, the coach known as “Pancho” has quickly made the Cardinals competitive.

Manriquez, who wrestled at Ukiah High and UC Davis, has a couple of talented freshmen in the fold. Jake Butler, who competes at 128 or 134 pounds, has a winning record despite never having wrestled before. Kyle Smith (122 or 128) is a technician with leadership qualities.

But Manriquez’s second-best wrestler is junior Michael Klee, P.J.’s younger brother. The California Wrestler currently ranks Michael No. 35 in the state at 132 pounds, though he has been wrestling at 145 lately. Michael’s greatest asset is his toughness, Manriquez said, though he’s had to improve his technique as he has gotten heavier.

“When I wrestled at the lighter weights, I didn’t use as much technique. I just tried to, like, strength the guys,” Michael said. “Now I’m a lot quicker, a lot faster on my feet. Mostly because at higher weights, the kids are a lot slower.”

P.J. has worked with Michael a lot this year. In fact, he has almost been a volunteer coach for the Cardinals. Arriving with a prestigious national ranking, some kids might have been aloof or even hostile to mentoring younger wrestlers, but PJ took it upon himself to work with the JV and first-year wrestlers.

“It’s a blessing,” said Manriquez, who praises Klee’s commitment to academics and the way he carries himself on the mat. “We see it as a positive thing. He’s a role model for all the other kids.”

Klee has accepted a scholarship to the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and will wrestle for Army next year.

He’s also a deeply religious kid. His big Christmas present was tattoos of wings on the inside of his upper arms, an homage to Isaiah 40:31 and its reference to soaring “on wings like eagles.”

Adjusting to new opponents

Klee’s development at Cardinal Newman has been a challenge. At Blair Academy, he faced a steady stream of high-level opponents.

They are in shorter supply here in the North Bay. He supplements his matches by driving to San Francisco a couple days a week to work with former All-American wrestler Travis Lee at El Nino Training Center, and to San Jose on weekends to train at a facility called Wrestling Prep, run by Carolyn Wester.

Klee participated in a preseason tournament in Minnesota, and in December he competed at the Walsh Ironman in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, maybe the toughest tournament in the nation for high schoolers. He was hoping to wrestle at 132 pounds in Ohio, but didn’t make weight. He wrestled at 138 and finished eighth, not up to Klee’s standards.

He hasn’t a match lost since.

After returning to California, Klee started wrestling at 145 pounds, with great results. He eventually jumped up another class, to 152, and beat the kid who is currently No. 2 in California at that weight at the Tim Brown Memorial in Sacramento.

“He’s hard to score on,” Manriquez said of Klee. “He’s really hard to score on. It’s hard to put points on the mat on him. … And he can score on you from just about any position, so he’s very dangerous. It’s hard to beat a kid like that.”

P.J. Klee plans to wrestle at 152 pounds at the NCS championships, and Michael at 145. Both of them are hoping to place in the top three at Newark and advance to the state championships in Bakersfield the following weekend.

It is the state competition that ultimately will decide whether P.J.’s transfer to Cardinal Newman can be called an athletic success. He hasn’t faced the opposition in the North Bay League that he would have seen at Blair Academy. Then again, California’s state tournament is among the toughest in the country — and winning in your home state must count for something.

“I think it’s gonna be a really cool experience,” Klee said.

“As a little kid, all the way from, shoot, third or fourth grade, I’ve been going to the California high school state tournament. Seeing those guys win was awesome. I knew I wanted to do it. Wrestling in front of 15,000 fans is an experience I won’t be able to have in many other places. … Just a good way to cap off my high school career.”You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

NCS WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIPS

The NCS tournament runs Friday and Saturday at Newark Memorial High School. Here’s a look at the Empire wrestlers seeded in each weight class at the tournament:

106 pounds

4. Austin Wilson, Windsor, Jr.

5. Denny Layden, Montgomery, Sr.

113 pounds

1. Perez Perez, Windsor, Sr.

120 pounds

2. Noah Au-Yeung, Windsor, Jr.

3. Brian Guerrero, Rancho Cotate, Sr.

5. Antonio Lopez, Upper Lake, Sr.

126 pounds

6. Dominic DuCharme, Windsor, Soph.

132 pounds

3. Seth Trunick, Windsor, Sr.

5. Evan Bluestone, Maria Carrillo, Sr.

138 pounds

2. Trevor Silva, Windsor, Sr.

5. Joseph Gradek, Ukiah, Jr.

145 pounds

3. Dominick Dingess, Lower Lake, Sr.

4. Michael Klee, Cardinal Newman, Jr.

8. Beau Colombini, Windsor, Soph.

152 pounds

1. PJ Klee, Cardinal Newman, Sr.

2. Ian Black, Healdsburg, Sr.

5. Erick Moreno, Lower Lake, Sr.

160 pounds

1. Dray Payne, Ukiah, Sr.

5. Ricky Cavender, Fort Bragg, Jr.

182 pounds

4. Nick Pruett, Petaluma, Sr.

7. Anthony Spallino, Windsor, Soph.

195 pounds

4. Paris Henry, Windsor, Sr.

220 pounds

7. Montana Pawek, Maria Carrillo, Jr.

285 pounds

1. Pablo Gonzalez, Ukiah, Sr.

4. William Isaacs, Lower Lake, Jr.

5. Salvador Carrillo, Windsor, Sr.

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