Eli Garcia is looking for a successful finish to his high school wrestling career. Lorain High coach Jim Kudrin just wants his senior 138-pounder to have some fun. They’ll both be on the mats tonight at the Division I sectional tournament in Lorain.
“It’s my last one, I don’t have any chances after this,” Garcia said. “I’ve been hungry for a while, and not making it to state last year makes me want it even more.”
Finishing as the state alternate at last year’s district tournament was disappointing mostly because Garcia had been on a steady climb. He qualified to the district tournament as a freshman, then advanced to the state tournament as a sophomore — both trips as a member of the Elyria Pioneers.
Garcia joined the Titans after his family moved back to Lorain, and again looked dominant during his junior season.
But after leading in his opening match at the Ashland district tournament, Garcia suffered a 9-8 loss to Perrysburg junior Ryan Roth, who finished fourth and earned a state berth. Garcia bounced back with three straight wins — a pinfall and a pair of major decisions — to reach the consolation semifinals before suffering a 6-3 loss to Medina’s Matt Hammer.
“It was a real tough one,” Garcia said. “It took a little while to get over, but you have to move on. You can’t dwell on stuff like that. You just have to move on and work harder.”
Working hard is something Garcia learned to do at a young age. He began wrestling in the Southview biddie program when he was just 5 years old, then started to train at All-American Wrestling in LaGrange.
“I started working out at The Barn with Erik’s (Burnett) dad, then I started working out with Erik and stayed with him since,” Garcia said. “I joined open tournaments (during the offseason) and did (the nationals in) Fargo (N.D.) one year. I just kept practicing, so that I could get my technique better and to get in better shape.”
Garcia has been handed his share of criticism in recent years. Kudrin alluded to rumors that his wrestler didn’t train hard and wasn’t coachable.
“I’ve heard a lot of things about Eli from a lot of different people, and I haven’t based my opinion of him on anything but my experience with him this year,” Kudrin said.
“I know there are a lot of haters out there that are not real big fans of Eli’s because he’s got some past problems, and there’s no denying that. There’s no denying that he struggled. But you’ve got to remember that he’s a kid, even at this point.”
Garcia has looked like a man among boys this season. He holds a 24-1 record — he’s 63-5 over the last two seasons — heading into the postseason, with his lone loss something of a fluke.
“He was leading 16-4 and made a move, and basically pinned himself,” Kudrin said. “There has been nobody to this point, skillwise, to match him. You can just see that his ability level is just heads and shoulders above anybody else.”
The loss came to Worthington Kilbourne’s Kyle Wahl in Lorain’s holiday tournament. Garcia has rolled over his competition since, including a 7-3 win over Liberty Center’s Zach Niner — a two-time state placer — in the championship match of the Oregon Clay tournament in January.
“He just dominated the guy,” Kudrin said. “You wouldn’t think he’d be able to do that with a two-time state placer, but he did … and it was pretty amazing.”
One of the reasons for the newfound domination is a change Kudrin made in Garcia’s game plan.
“At the beginning of the year, he liked to tech fall kids,” Kudrin said. “I told him I didn’t think that was a good idea for him. I wanted him to pin guys as soon as possible. So when we went down to Fairfield, of his five matches, four of them were pins. He had the most pins in the least amount of time.
“So that’s what I’m going to have him do in the sectionals and for the rest of the year. I’m going to encourage him to work hard to pin guys rather than take it to the third period.”
Garcia doesn’t seem to have any problem with that. He doesn’t care how he wins the match, only that he wins … and keeps winning.
“I really only have one goal this season — just to win it all,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying my senior season, it’s my last season. At the same time, you can’t enjoy it too much or you can lose focus on what you need to do.”
Kudrin just wants to make sure the focus doesn’t become so great that the fun is diminished to nothing.
“Kids start so young now and the problem with that is they get burned out,” Kudrin said. “They are out there wrestling because their parents want them to do it or because there is an opportunity for them to get into college. It doesn’t seem to be a lot of fun for them anymore.
“So the conversation I’ve had with Eli is when he looks up at me when we’re at the districts and he’s in his go-to (state) match — and he will be — I said I’m going to put my fingers on the corners of my mouth and push my lips up like a smile. I’m going to remind him that right now is not the time to be upset, but it’s the time to have fun. He’s worked his whole life for that moment.”