By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Vickie Espinoza must be getting tired of finishing second. Then again, considering the level of competition, the Rancho Cotate wrestler has every right to feel like a champion.
Less than five months after finishing as runner-up at the California State Girls Wrestling Championships, Espinoza reached the same plateau at USA Wrestling’s Junior Women’s Freestyle Championships in Fargo, N.D., this week.
“It was awesome,” the incoming senior said of the national event. “It’s something a lot of people don’t get a chance to do. It’s crazy I got to do it.”
After wrestling on the center mat for the 198-pound championship match at the Fargodome (on the North Dakota State University campus) on Tuesday, Espinoza joined one of two California teams for the Junior National Dual Championships on Wednesday. This time, she helped her squad take first place.
It was an impressive showing for a kid who hasn’t participated in a lot of freestyle tournaments. The Fargo matches were broken down into a pair of 3-minute rounds, as opposed to the three 2-minute rounds to which Espinoza is accustomed.
She said the strange surroundings and unfamiliar format made her uncomfortable — and that, for some reason, usually works to her advantage.
“Even when I used to play softball, when I’d bump up in age group and I’d go against pitchers that were faster than normal, I’d do better,” Espinoza said.
The scoring was different, too. Under the freestyle system, wrestlers have less time to score points before returning to neutral position. So Espinoza’s coaches in Fargo urged her to attack.
“Normally I don’t shoot much, but I started opening up a little more,” she said. “I think that was key for me to win. The wrestling is completely different than in a normal high school season, just the mentality. I realized I’m physically ahead of these girls. I just needed to get the mentality.”
Espinoza made it to the championship match without much difficulty. And it certainly wasn’t because of an easy draw in the brackets. Two of the girls she beat — Taylor Rosario of Cinco Ranch, Texas, and Tanyka Massiah of New York City — finished third and fourth, respectively, at 198 pounds.
Espinoza lost 5-2 to Monica Mason of Newark, N.Y., in the final. It was a respectable score, but Espinoza was unhappy with her performance. She was tight, a fact she chalked up to the intensity of the national tournament.
“It’s a whole different world being on that center mat,” Espinoza said. “The mat is raised, the lights are off, you run through this smoke tunnel. It’s pretty cool, but terrifying at the same time. I was so nervous. That wasn’t me in that match.”
Espinoza got another crack at Mason in the dual championships and lost again, but felt she wrestled much better the second time around.
“Hopefully, I see that girl again in college,” she said.
Espinoza, who turns 17 today, set her sights on a college wrestling career some time ago. This week’s trip to North Dakota only clarified the goal. She stayed on the NDSU campus for five days, sleeping in the dorms and eating and practicing in the gym.
“The whole day was like being in college,” Espinoza said. “It was a good experience for seeing what college is like.”
And Fargo itself?
“Very flat,” Espinoza surmised.
Unlike her wrestling career, which seems always to be pointing upward.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Skinny_Post.