WATSONVILLE — Abel Pena’s junior year of wrestling keeps getting better and better.

Months after becoming Watsonville High’s first Central Coast Section wrestling champ since 2007, Pena qualified for the US Marine Corps Cadet & Junior National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota.

Pena said he qualified for the tournament during his freshman season at 106 pounds but never made the trip to the home of the Great Plains because he attended other summer camps. This year, however, he convinced his dad to let him go to the grandest youth wrestling tournament in the country to test his skills against the best the nation has to offer.

“It’s my junior year and one of my last years here,” Pena said. “It’s going to be a big tournament and he knows it’s going to be a big tournament. It’s probably going to be one of the toughest tournaments that I’ve ever been in.”

The tournament, put on by USA Wrestling, starts on July 14 and runs until the 22nd at the FargoDome.

Pena qualified for nationals in the freestyle and Greco-Roman divisions and will represent the state of California in both tournaments on separate days.

Pena said that travel costs, including flight, room and food, are expected to exceed $2,000. His father, Abel Sr., who took on a second job to pay for tournaments and camps a handful of years ago, will foot the bill and the Penas also set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money.

To donate to his cause, visit gofundme.com/sapr6u-help-send-me-to-nationals.

“It never worked out in the past but this year we really made the effort to get him to the tournament,” Abel Sr. said. “It’s one of the biggest tests in the nation. It’s a big tournament for him going into his senior year.”

His family will not be able to make the trip but Pena will travel with his teammate and longtime friend, who wrestles for Alvarez High. Abel Sr. and the rest of the family will be able to keep up with a live stream of the tournament provided by trackwrestling.com.

Abel Sr. also said he’d be in constant contact over text message and phone calls following matches. Pena also expects his uncle Nick, who also won a CCS Championship while wrestling for Watsonville High, to call him with advice after each match like he has over the years.

“I know he’ll be calling me — he always does,” Pena said. “My parents, they’ll be keeping up with everything, too.”

Pena burst on to the wrestling scene during the 2016-17 high school season by claiming multiple tournament titles. He stunned the field at the Monterey Bay League tournament by winning the 122-pound title and then followed up his powerful performance with another impressive showing at the CCS tournament, where he ran the gauntlet to secure the 120-pound section crown.

He fell just a couple of points short of placing at the California Interscholastic Federation state tournament a week later, fighting through a lingering back injury to finish with a 3-2 record.

Pena said he’s drastically improved his movement and the velocity of his hands and shots since the end of the high school season. He’s worked with Amateur Wrestling Academy in San Jose and Santa Cruz Gold, where he trains with retired legendary Watsonville High coach Gary Garcia.

He said his goal is to earn All-American status, which only comes with a top-six finish — the top eight wrestlers will earn a spot on the podium.

“It would mean a lot,” Pena said. “Placing at one of the toughest tournaments in the country is a big, big step. Placing at state is one thing but placing at nationals is a whole ‘nother level.”

Pena’s road to nationals was anything but easy. He lost his opening match in both tournaments but rallied back to the third-place match to qualify.

In the freestyle tournament, which took place on May 14, he had to win seven straight matches in a matter of hours to advance to nationals. Three weeks later he overcame another tournament-opening loss by stringing together four consecutive wins to qualify in the Greco-Roman discipline.

“They were both upsets but he came back,” Abel Sr. said. “I think it kind of upset him because he just took everyone else the rest of the way. We were all saying, ‘well, I guess he likes doing things the hard way.’”

Pena started wrestling at the age of 8. Abel Sr. said Pena, who has always been the smallest kid on the mat no matter what weight class he competed in, took his lumps during the first few years of wrestling but he never quit. The early doses of humility made him work harder and become more disciplined.

“He actually picked it up pretty quick and stuck with it,” Abel Sr. said.

Pena, who has not gone more than a couple of days without training over the last seven years, said he hopes to turn his passion of wrestling into a college scholarship, which will help him meet his goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. He said his mom, Guadalupe Gonzalez, inspired him to explore the medical field.

“I want to go into the health field and learn more about it and then, soon, help others,” Pena said.  

But for the next few weeks, his focus will be on mat.

“I’m going to go out [to nationals] and put my name out there,” Pena said. “If I place, I place and that’d be a big accomplishment. But it’s also about the experience.”

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