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ALL-COUNTY WRESTLING

Vision Quest

Steve Esparza has known since he was 8 that wrestling was the sport for him, and he seems to get better at it every year. As a senior at Calvary Chapel this season, he went 41-1 and was state champion at 130 pounds.

March 20, 2001|ERIK HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Steve Esparza made his wrestling debut at Calvary Chapel four years ago, Eagle Coach John Azevedo already knew he had a gem on his hands.

"Steve came in as a great kid wrestler," Azevedo said. 'He's probably one of the most talented wrestlers I've ever coached--and that's including kids like state champions Joey Calavitta, Josh Holiday and Ty Wilcox."

Azevedo's words take on added significance when you consider that Calvary Chapel is recognized by USA Wrestling as one of the nation's top high school programs and the school just recorded a record seventh state title and crowned three champions--including Esparza--in the process.

With a season record of 41-1, Esparza earned The Times' Orange County wrestler of the year award. He has been one of the Eagles' cornerstones the last two seasons.

"Steve is a great kid," Azevedo said. "He has remained focused the entire season and he's never been deterred, even when he had the hip injury after the Reno Invitational."

Since he was 8, when he began competing for the SoCal Wrestling Club in Buena Park, Esparza knew that wrestling would be his sport.

"He used to play Pop Warner football with his friends and they all told him he should try wrestling," said Esparza's mother, Chris. "But once he tried it, he became more interested in that than football. He seemed to be a natural, and he loved the sport so much."

Said Esparza: "I was still playing football when I went out for wrestling. I went on to win the state championship for the 8-year-old division of the 65-pound weight class that year. That's when I thought I could do this forever."

In junior high, Esparza left the SoCal club and started wrestling with Team Thunder, a freestyle club in Santa Ana. It was there he started to work out with Calvary Chapel's top wrestlers, including state champions Wilcox and Calavitta. It was also there that he decided Calvary Chapel was the school he wanted to attend.

"It was the obvious choice for me," Esparza said. "I wanted to go to what I thought was the best team in the state."

A four-year starter at Calvary Chapel, Esparza, in his freshman year, won the 112-pound Olympic League title, took second at the Division I finals and fifth at Masters. After that season, Esparza said he was eagerly awaiting his sophomore year.

Little did he know that his 1999-99 season would become pivotal in his career as a wrestler.

"I was undisciplined that year. I ate what I wanted and I wasn't focused on what I needed to do," Esparza said.

Not happy with the constant battle to make weight, Esparza said his positive attitude changed, and he entertained thoughts of quitting. Finally, the hammer came down when he failed to make weight before the Southern Section Division I finals, and his season came to an abrupt end.

Said Esparza: "I was really down then. I kept thinking what's the point and asking myself, 'Do I want to keep doing this?' "

When the season ended, after Esparza watched his team finish a disappointing 12th at state, he knew he had to come back.

"I made some big changes during the off-season," Esparza said. "I decided to take hold of my conditioning and eating. I became focused on what I needed to do."

Although Esparza prepared himself mentally and physically for his junior season, his greatest challenge came from Brethren Christian's Michael Simpson. Simpson, who had been wrestling Esparza since they were kids, was the state's top 125-pounder, with Esparza ranked second. They met three times--at Five Counties, division finals and state--and Simpson won all three.

"It was a good learning experience for me," Esparza said. "I learned a lot from my junior year. And it got me ready for my senior year."

And his senior season was, as Esparza calls it, "nearly perfect."

Esparza finished with a 41-1 record--the loss was to Poway's Andy Kim at Five Counties in December--won Division I and Masters titles, and took the 130-pound state title at Stockton earlier this month.

The state title was especially sweet for Esparza, because it was his first, and because he avenged the Five Counties loss by beating Kim, 8-3.

With his high school career over, Esparza is looking forward to college. Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska have expressed interest, and he will take the first of his recruiting trips to Oregon State this week. A week later, he will be in Delaware for the nationals, a seniors-only competition that features the nation's state champions.

"I want to see how I do there because if I have a good meet, I could get more colleges interested in me," Esparza said. "It's pretty nice, though."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Coach of the Year

John Azevedo / Calvary Chapel

While Calvary Chapel continues to attract the top wrestlers in the state and the county, the fact that it's Azevedo who's doing the attracting. A zealot for technique, drills and conditioning, Azevedo has taken his Eagles to a record seven state titles.

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