APTOS—It’s been nearly a year since Aptos High junior Diego Hernandez was denied a league crown after coming up short to Harbor High’s Christian Cruz in last season’s wrestling finals.
On Wednesday, he got a chance at some redemption against his newly formed Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League rival when the Mariners took on the Pirates in the teams’ dual meet at Aptos High.
“My mindset was he can’t beat me this time,” Hernandez said. “Before I stepped on the mat, I knew I was going to win.”
It took a sudden-death overtime period to get it done, but Hernandez beat Cruz, 11-10, in a thrilling 108-pound match that finally got him over the hump.
“[Cruz is] a really great wrestler, probably the best I’ve ever wrestled,” Hernandez said. “So much good to say about him.”
On Wednesday evening, the young Mariners standout kept the pressure on the entire match and knew that once he let his foot off the gas pedal, Cruz was more than capable of catching him off guard.
Hernandez’s teammates and coaches cheered for him at the top of their lungs as he made his way back into the match, scoring two points in the final 10 seconds to force overtime.
“The only time I looked up I saw them screaming but other than that it was dead silent in my brain, just going to work,” he said. “All season long I was working to beat him.”
Hernandez said it was just great to get some revenge after Cruz defeated him in a 15-6 major decision at last year’s league finals.
Aptos High coach Rudy Guzman told his up and coming wrestler that he may have been a little short last season, but that’s the way he wanted Hernandez to lose because it only made him work that much harder this season.
“That’s what we’ve been working on this season, is just hang in there and let’s clutch it out at the end,” Guzman said.
Guzman credits the extra season of wrestling under Hernandez’s belt for helping him elevate to the next level.
As a sophomore, Hernandez was practically a first-year wrestler after not seeing much action in his freshman season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“That experience, I think, showed today and his drive in the wrestling room, setting his goals and accomplishing them,” Guzman said.
Hernandez worked out during the summer break and slowly returned from a minor knee injury that prevented him from competing.
“He was here hanging out, learning technique and just being hungry to prove that he’s an elite wrestler,” Guzman said.
Andrew Acevedo (132 pounds) has been doing really well in his fourth year on the team and put in extra work in the offseason.
“Same thing with him and Diego [Hernandez], they’ve been putting in that work and they’re hungry to kind of redeem themselves from last year,” Guzman said.
Aptos also features senior Dante Aranda who transitioned from the football team and came in with the least experience. Guzman said his standout heavyweight could’ve been a state qualifier if he would’ve joined the team as a freshman.
“He’s a football player but man, he just has a drive and he’s just an athlete,” Guzman said. “Put him in there and he doesn’t know what he’s doing most of the time, but somehow he finds the way to win.”
Jaxson Stoner, a junior, hadn’t really wrestled for the past two years after he suffered a leg injury that sidelined him for two seasons. He got thrown into the varsity lineup and he’s been placing high in tournaments, surprising people left and right.
“I think he’s that wild horse for us,” Guzman said.
On the girls side, Janie Houser put in some work during the summer break and has been placing at every tournament in the 132-pound weight division.
“With [Houser] it’s been nothing but going uphill and enjoying that roller coaster of highs,” Guzman said.
Houser and the rest of the girls team including Mikayla Santaella, who is currently wrestling at 170 pounds, are just gearing up for the SCCAL finals and beyond.
The Mariners currently own a 3-1 record in league play and have one more dual meet at Scotts Valley High School on Feb. 1 at 5:30pm. Then just two days later it’s the SCCAL Wrestling Championships at San Lorenzo Valley High scheduled at the same time.
Guzman said the priority is not winning a league title; rather, it’s about getting his wrestlers prepared and positioned at the weight class they want to be in order to succeed.
Hernandez recalls the beginning when he first stepped into the wrestling room and he was just a small, scrawny youngster.
“Maybe I still am, but back then I was 95 pounds, which is way below underweights,” he said.
Hernandez said he’s proud to be able to return, get stronger and get better on the mat. The goal from here on out is to improve his technique, speed and overall become the best wrestler he could possibly be.
“Just improve and get better day by day, just to do better than I was last year,” he said. “See where it takes me.”
Guzman mentioned that some coaches like to strategize by moving athletes up and down weight classes. He prefers to keep the Mariners wrestlers where they feel most comfortable.
That means not having to cut weight or move up two weight classes to fill a spot. Guzman believes that can deter kids from enjoying the sport, which is the last thing he wants.
“There’s too many things to think about,” he said. “I just want to make sure every athlete is put in a position where they can succeed the best.”