Grappling with a chance to make history

Valencia High senior America Lopez trains with her coach and brother Andrew Lopez at Peterson Grapplers in Valencia. Lopez said one of her goals this year is to defend her championship. PHOTOS BY DAN WATSON / THE SIGNAL

America once again has a chance to make history. 

America Lopez, that is. 

She entered her senior year this fall ranked No. 1 in the state of California for her sport, after winning her first state title as a junior in the 170-pound division.

Top-ranked in the state, No. 2 in the country, Lopez has a clear focus on her goals, although the sky’s the proverbial limit for her. 

“I want to win another state title,” Lopez said during an interview in September, citing her goals for the year.”I want to defend my title, and continue wrestling and go to Menlo College, hopefully. That’s my goal.”

While Menlo might not be a household name for some, those in wrestling circles know how competitive the program is. In March 2020, before collegiate athletics shut down for the nation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Menlo College women’s wrestling program was just starting its defense of the previous year’s national championship, and the program’s website lists a number of acclaimed recruits from across the country.

The college seems like a perfect environment for Lopez, 17, who grew up with five brothers who all wrestle. She decided pretty early on that she wanted to take it seriously, and given that everyone in the family seems to enjoy the sport, that’s not really a surprise.

“Everyone’s a wrestler,” she said with a laugh. “I have five brothers. I’m in the middle.”

Andrew, 22, is the oldest brother and coaches high school girls wrestlers, including America. He recently wrestled for East Los Angeles College. He also wrestled at Valencia his junior and senior year. Nicholas, 19, the second oldest, wrestled all four years at Valencia High, graduating two years ago. Alex Lopez is 14, has been wrestling for four years, and looking forward to starting his first season of wrestling at Valencia this year; Eric, 10, and Cain, 7, both already have started wrestling with kids in their age groups.

Getting started

“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would have all my kids wrestle,” said America’s father, Doroteo Lopez, who boxed a little when he was younger, but was never really a wrestler himself.

To hear the Lopez kids and their parents tell it, the love of wrestling for the family kind of sprung up out of nowhere from the active kids who enjoyed playing and wrestling with each other.

“She grew up with five brothers,” her mother, Nohemi, says with a laugh, “so she learned how to kick butt early.”

Her parents quickly realized their daughter has a special talent for the sport during a tournament her freshman year. America was accidentally put in a weight class above her normal level, but after she won against the first two competitors she faced, they decided to keep her there. 

“She wrestled her first two matches, and beat up these two boys, and they realized they put her in the wrong bracket, and they were like, ‘Well, you already wrestled, and you’re winning, so … ’ Nicalas recalled from a back office inside Peterson Grappling in Valencia, where the family trains on weeknights. “She continued and won the whole tournament.”

Growing competition

In the years since, girls wrestling has expanded exponentially at the high school level, in California and beyond.

In this state alone, girls wrestling saw the second-biggest gain, after girls lacrosse, with 7.2% more participation, according to an August 2020 news release from California Interscholastic Federation officials, who regulate high school sports. In 2012, there were a little over 2,000 girls competing statewide, a figure that’s now more than 6,400, according to CIF data.

And this year, the CIF is planning to accommodate the growth with an expanded platform to showcase its top wrestlers. Last year featured the CIF awarding the first state championship team in girls wrestling. 

“It’s exciting because this year represents a transition for us,” said Richard Shearer, assistant commissioner for the CIF, who oversees baseball, football and wrestling, in addition to several other duties. “We’re transitioning, due to the growth in participation and the number of teams that we continue to add, we’re going to have four championships, and then we’ll have our first girls Masters event at Marina High School. … It’s a reflection of the growth and success we’ve had in girls wrestling.”

Preparing for success

Brian Peterson of Peterson Grapplers said in watching America Lopez improve through her work in his facility — primarily under the tutelage of her older brother, Doroteo — he’s seen her develop what he calls “the champion’s focus,” which has really helped her reach her championship potential.

“It’s definitely a different level once you get to that point where you understand what you have to sacrifice in order to accomplish your goals,” he said, “and she’s kinda got that this last season.”

The proof of this determination could be seen in how she earned her title this past season, in a battle with Katja Osteen of Royal, who was also a junior last year. Osteen managed wins against Lopez twice earlier in the season, but when the championship was on the line, America was able to take home the title.  

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