The trip to Tempe High School for the 2012 Sunkids Classic on Saturday, January 7 was a tournament the Salt River junior high wrestling team was looking forward to. They put in the work on the track, in the weight room and on the wrestling mat. The hard work paid off, as both eighth-graders Lavelle Benally (167-pound division) and Jeffrey Thomas (heavyweight) won their way to the gold-medal matches in their divisions.
Thomas beat an East Valley Wrestling Club member who previously held a perfect 30-0 record. He was able to pin his opponent in the third period of the finals match. Head wrestling coach Simon Smith said the heavyweight division accepts wrestlers up to 265 pounds, and Thomas weighed in at 209 pounds.
“This was only Jeff’s third tournament in his wrestling career,” he said. “He has wrestled [in fewer] than 12 matches and all of his opponents have outweighed him.”
At the completion of the match, Thomas dedicated his gold-medal performance to his friend and teammate Benally. In Thomas’s first tournament of the season at San Manuel, he won a silver medal. Then he won a bronze medal at his second tournament, the Deer Valley Invitational.
Benally won the silver medal in the 167-pound weight class. Chris Mejia finished the tournament 1-2, and Smith said he showed improvement along with the rest of the team.
“I think as you do more matches and as the season goes on and you put in more practice time, you come to know the moves better and become a better technician and a more experienced wrestler,” Mejia said. “I think that helped me, going to all the practices and matches and just being there and being part of the team as much as possible to become a more fulfilled wrestler.
“I try to watch as many matches as possible to see what they are doing and try to see if that can help me and I might try it out.”
Mejia said as a team they are all doing better and lasting longer into periods. He said the improvements are giving them confidence and they are building off each other, and he said that makes you want to get out there and see what you can do.
Smith said the Sunkids Classic is a prestigious tournament that touts itself as the “Best & Toughest Middle School Tournament in the West.” It is an open national tournament, which means it is open to private club teams, unattached wrestlers and wrestlers from out of state. It is also open to school teams.
“We are a school team, so we also stress academics,” he explained. “Our athletes have to maintain academic eligibility to wrestle. Many finalists were state champs, national champs and champions from other big tournaments nationwide. And there was even a judo national champion who entered the tournament.
“I am very proud of Jeffrey and Lavelle. They have both come a long way in their very short careers and I’m sure will continue to have great success in their wresting futures. They are also great students.”
He said Thomas’ Sunkids gold medal is an awesome accomplishment, especially for a first-year wrestler.
“I am proud of all the junior high wrestlers,” Smith said. “Their conditioning workouts have steadily increased in difficulty, but they have also steadily increased their fitness and met the challenge of daily workouts that most athletes and regular folks would find a great challenge to complete. They have also dealt with many aches and pains and injury. They do all this while staying academically eligible.”