Benefield: Rancho Cotate wrestler Vickie Espinoza bounces up off the mat

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Vickie Espinoza, a Rancho Cotate High School junior who last weekend took second in the CIF state girls wrestling finals, says her entry into the sport four years ago came as a result of a bullying incident.

Wrestler Vickie Espinoza of Rancho Cotate High School. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Wrestler Vickie Espinoza of Rancho Cotate High School. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

I thought I knew where the story was going — young girl, persecuted by a goon, learns the nuances of grappling until she’s strong enough to put her tormentor in a cradle hold until the thug cries uncle.

Nope.

It’s true a fellow eighth grader at Lawrence Jones Middle School wanted a piece of Espinoza, threatening to jump her near Hinebaugh Creek near campus after school.

But Espinoza wanted none of it. So she started taking refuge in the gym during wrestling practice, just long enough for coach Joe Guinn’s wife to give her a lift home, driving right by her tormentor, the creek and any chance of a fight.

She’d do her homework and only occasionally glance down at what the athletes were doing on the mat.

But Espinoza, a standout softball player and soccer goalkeeper, didn’t stay on the bleachers for long.

“I said, ‘If you are going to watch, you might as well practice,’ ” Guinn said.

He had only one reservation. Guinn’s wife was Espinoza’s softball coach and the eighth grader was the team’s star first baseman and cleanup hitter.

“My wife told me if she ever got hurt, she’d kill me,” Guinn said.

Guinn shouldn’t have worried about Espinoza getting hurt; he should have worried that she would so take to wrestling that all other sporting endeavors would fall by the wayside.

After her freshman year at Rancho, she dropped soccer. After her sophomore year, she dropped softball. Wrestling was all she wanted to do.

“I really did fall in love with the sport,” she said. “It definitely made me more confident.”

She needs to be. Competing in the 235-pound heavyweight class but weighing in at 210, Espinoza often gives significant bulk to her opponents.

“The good thing about being lighter is that you are a lot quicker and I’m pretty strong,” she said.

Yes, quick and strong, but for two years running not quite quick enough or strong enough to topple senior Lakiyah Wagoner of Birmingham High School in Los Angeles. Wagoner, state champ two years in a row and national champ last year, bested Espinoza in the early rounds of the 2014 state tournament and in this season’s championship last Saturday.

Two years, two double-overtime matches, two losses.

That’s enough to test even the most confident of competitors.

“It was as close of a match as you could have,” Rancho Cotate wrestling coach Damien Mason said.

“In the last 10 seconds of the 30-second (overtime) period, the wrestler was awarded an escape and got one point,” Mason said. “Time expired. She didn’t get the takedown. She ended up losing by one point.”

Ten seconds.

A season decided in 10 seconds.

“There was some emotion,” Mason said about the moments following the end of the tournament, the end of the season, the end of her junior campaign.

“She handled herself with grace and poise and finished out the rest of the ceremonies,” he said. “The loss still stings but at the same time, she is realizing what she accomplished.”

Espinoza has no qualms about saying she came up short of her own expectations.

“My goal was to win state,” she said. “I worked my butt off.”

But ask her teammates and they’ll tell you that Espinoza, the only Cougar wrestler to make the state tourney, will keep working her butt off. She’ll keep leading practices as a captain; she’ll keep pressing her own game forward.

“She likes to push really hard,” co-captain Jacob Juarez said. “We all knew she was really good. She led by example.”

Sophomore Daniel Diaz was even more succinct.

“She’s hardcore,” he said.

Hard core and a hard worker. It’s a combination coach Mason said is hard to beat.

Espinoza is only four days removed from the toughest loss of her career, but her focus is only forward.

Oh, and the bully? The one who intimidated Espinoza into taking refuge in the middle school gym four years ago and inadvertently introduced her to her passion?

She moved to Texas the following year.

And this is just a guess, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a state medal. In anything.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.