By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
In the 24 hours after his defeat in the state tournament finals match at 195 pounds, Alvaro Venegas did a lot of soul searching.
Venegas went into the tournament seeded first in the state, and went into the final match with a 51-1 record. He ended up losing 3-2 after his opponent, Brian Barnes, took him down in the third round.
“I dwelled on it for the whole day after, but I thought back to my coaches and the older guys and a title doesn’t define me.
“(Jason) Ebbs said there’s always someone who wants it more than you do. That may not be the case for me, but this guy has been wrestling his entire life. He dedicated his life to it,” Venegas said. “Brian was ready to wrestle. I think I choked. Maybe I got too cocky, but Brian is going to do great for himself,” Venegas said.
Ebbs is McNary’s head wrestling coach.
If that answer sounds humble, it’s par for the course for Venegas. Talking with him after matches this past year, he never had a harsh word for any opponent. He mostly talked about them being “cool guys.”
That attitude defines him more than any title – regional, state or national – ever could.
“As he wrestled through this season, he was the strongest mental wrestler I had seen in a long time. He learned how to control his opponents, how to control the match, and how to control position so that every match was wrestled on his terms,” Ebbs said.
It was a far cry from when Venegas started wrestling at Claggett Creek Middle School in eighth grade.
“I would hear the guys talking about how hard wrestling was. But, getting out there basically naked with other guys, I wasn’t sure about it,” he said.
He took the leap and thought he did fine in practices, but he didn’t win a single match that year. He entered McNary as a heavyweight at 265 pounds.
“I didn’t really work out. But, sophomore year, Zach Hammerschmith and Mason Ross kind of took me under their wing and started getting me to work out. Mason would take me to the gym – usually without my consent -– and he bought me some supplements. Still, I went through the season getting beat up.”
He and Ross spent time that year swinging between the two heavyweight classes, 220 and 265 pounds. When the Oregon Classic came around, he had a crisis of faith, a result of not winning a single match.
“I was ready to quit, but Zach, Mason and Edgar (Jimenez) took me to dinner that night and told me to stick it out. The next day I took part in a cadet tournament and placed third. I was still a chunky 220, but the muscle had started forming and I thought maybe I could do something with this,” Venegas said.
Ebbs kept an eye on Venegas’ development in the following months, particularly when he needed a shot of confidence.
“When we sent him to the district tournament and told him, ‘you are going to state if you perform.’ He did not believe it until he found himself wrestling in the third place match and having already qualified for state,” Ebbs said.
The confidence gained there carried over to the next season.
“I went into junior year and suddenly my body just started falling off. I was working out twice a day. I was wrestling with Zach and he’s a competitive guy. I was eating a lot and still dropping weight,” Venegas said.
When the Classic rolled around again, Venegas weighed 202 and Ebbs approached him about cutting to 199 since there was a four-pound variance according to the rules of the Classic.
“The night before the tournament, the other guys on the team had me and Taran (Purkey) in layers of sweats and we had to tag every other team member. I wasn’t eating or drinking and I lost like 12 pounds that night. Woke up the next day and wrestled like crap,” he said. “I didn’t win a match and messed up my shoulder.”
By the time Venegas began his senior year, he was a lean and muscled 195. He’s started running twice a day and joined the cross country team with some coercion from wrestling teammate Riley Repp.
As he began racking up wins, the sky didn’t even seem like a limit. He was only pinned once and was soon leading state rankings. He capped the Greater Valley Conference season with a district title despite suffering a dislocated shoulder in the finals match.
A week prior, Venegas was joined by his mother on the mat for Senior Night. She’s been mostly wheelchair-bound for the past three years after a diagnosis with multiple sclerosis eight years ago.
“I just try to do as much as I can when I can. My goal is to do more now that my schedule isn’t as weird with wrestling,” Venegas said.
Despite her illness, Venegas said his mother still insists on cooking dinner even if her sons need to help her.
“It’s one of the reasons I’m scared to leave for college. I will do more now, but I feel the responsibility to her,” he said.
Venegas would like to go to Clackamas Community College, home to a powerhouse wrestling squad, where he might get more looks from four-year colleges and universities.
“I’m not quite ready to hang up the towel yet. I would love to wrestle in the PAC 12,” he said.
Ebbs said Venegas’s biggest impact was on his teammates, with or without a state title.
“It was very clear to see the positive impact he had on people, how he made them feel, how he helped them perform better, and how he tried to have everyone operate at a high standard with a ‘team’ mentality. He helped others around him be better and that will not be forgotten,” Ebbs said.
Given the amount of dedication – as well as the results he’s seen – it would be easy for Venegas to rest on his laurels, but that attitude that’s carried him through the ups and downs is still his defining characteristic.
“I saw some of the older guys lose, get angry and talk about how much they hated their opponents,” he said. “Anyone who wrestles … I don’t care if you win a single match, but if you can survive the wrestling room, the workouts, the cutting weight, the getting beat up, I have respect for you.”