Pitman High School senior Lilly Avalos now sits alone in the girls 121-pound weight class in the state of California as she is a CIF State Wrestling champion after dominating a pair of Saturday matches at this year’s annual tournament in Bakersfield. With her two weekend wins, Avalos brings home the fourth state wrestling title in the school’s nearly 21-year history, joining Lilly Freitas in 2019 and 2020 and Juan Mora and Alana Ontiveros in 2021.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Avalos said. “I'm so ecstatic about it and I'm very proud of myself. All the nerves that I had and all the stress have turned into just pure excitement and happiness. I just wanted to be a state champion, and now I’m going to be on the top of that podium.”
As she has done all season, Avalos left no doubt on the mats in both her semifinal and finals matchups on Saturday. In the semifinals, she grappled her way to a 13-6 decision win over Samantha Sachs of Glendora High. In her finals match later that day, she made quick work of Anaheim’s Lilyana Balderas, as she secured a pin at the 1:19 mark of the very first period. The two wins also clinched a perfect 42-0 season for Avalos to end her high school career.
“I was trying to be really strategic with my wrestling technique. I didn't know whether or not to cater to her style or to stay true to mine. I was really just going out there to get a feel for it and go with the flow, but my main goal was just to be a smart wrestler with good setups, good shots and not give up points too easily. When everything's on the line, you’ve got to be careful, especially in a room where everyone's watching. It's so nerve wracking, but it gives you the biggest adrenaline rush,” said Avalos who will be wrestling at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa next year.
After jumping in front of the scorecards 2-0 with a takedown, Avalos saw a slight opening to get a finish, and she took full advantage of it.
“This is such an important match that I didn't want to really risk it by getting too excited about how many points I could rack up or performing the best match of the night, so when I saw an opportunity for the fall, I took it,” she explained. “She was really hard to stick, so I was trying my best while also considering that time was running out and while preventing the ref from breaking us up from lack of motion and action. When the pin actually happened, I was in shock.”
Avalos admitted that the possibility of becoming a state champion has weighed on her mind for the past year after being the runner-up in last year’s tournament.
“Especially after last year losing in the finals, coming out with a different result this time was the part hit me so hard,” she said. “I've just been so overwhelmed with all the love and support I have received, not just today but the whole season, with people rooting for me to get back here and actually win the state championship. Whether it’s comments, people posting me on the [social media] stories, anything.”
Avalos shared that coming into her job at a local daycare on Sunday, emotions started to ramp up as the children welcomed her with applause, hugs and cards congratulating her.
“I had kids coming in with cards and little drawings of me with the first-place medal, and it was just really cute and it really touched me. It just makes me so emotional.”
One of the first people to congratulate Avalos on the win was the man who has been beside her on her wrestling journey since she was in elementary school, Pride head coach Adam Vasconcelos. He feels as if Avalos becoming a state champion was destiny.
“I couldn't imagine it not happening,” Vasconcelos said. “She's just been such a staple for our program. She's an amazing human being, a fun, vibrant person. She was in fifth and sixth grade pinning boys at the local wrestling tournament. It just had to happen. She wasn't going to let it not happen. She needed to get her banner in our gym and be part of our history of our school forever. That was a huge deal for her. I’m just so incredibly proud of her.”
Vasconcelos’ work in the coach’s corner would be far from finished once Avalos clinched her state title, as sisters Baya and Gabby Austin also earned their ways into the finals on Saturday night.
Younger sister Baya, a freshman competing for the 126-pound title, earned her finals match with a 9-0 major decision victory in the semifinals against Elk Grove’s Loretta Lopez. In the finals, she was pinned by Fargo All-American Carissa Qureshi of Marina High at 1:05 of the opening period.
“Baya holds herself to a standard that most people can't even think about. In her mind, she wants perfection, so I know her not winning is devastating to her,” Vasconcelos said.
Vasconcelos described the finals match between Austin and Qureshi as a “weird situation,” as Austin initially fought off Qureshi’s first leg attack. Before long, Qureshi gained top position and controlled Austin’s hand, leaving her in a vulnerable position.
“I think if that didn't happen, I think it turns into a war, and I'll take Baya in a war any day of the week,” Vasconcelos said.
As a freshman wrestler, Austin achieved a 40-2 record, which Vasconcelos believes is just a preview for what’s to come in her career at Pitman.
“I know she's disappointed, but she set the tone here and set the precedent. She's going to be a force these next three years for sure,” he said.
Older sister Gabby, a sophomore competing in the 131-pound division, suffered a similar fate in the very next match of the championship round. Austin earned her place in the finals after a pin of Enochs High’s Sophia Hejnal in the semifinals with two seconds left of the second period. Like her sister, Austin then faced one of the top wrestlers in the nation in returning state medalist and No. 1 seeded Taydem Khamjoi of Cesar Chavez High (Stockton). Though Austin was pinned at 2:54 of the first period after falling behind 9-0, Vasconcelos explained that her making a run to the finals is an accomplishment in itself.
“Gabby didn't wrestle her first tournament until the first week of January, so she really only had about eight weeks of full-on competition,” he explained. “She came to the tournament last year and didn't win a match, so for her to come in as the sixth seed in the tournament and to just start knocking off higher seeds over and over and over and just blow up the bracket and make the final is amazing. It just shows her work ethic and how tough she really is. She's just scratching the surface of her talents. She's going to be one of the best in our school history when she's done here in a few years. Gabby's a special human being.”
Together, the trio of Avalos and the Austins earned third place in the girls team standings.
“I'm so grateful to have one year with a whole bunch of girls on the team for four years that supported each other, and push each other to get better,” Avalos shared. “At one point, I was the only girls wrestling before Alana came, now we’ve been with the Austin sisters, who are so awesome. We also had two who were ineligible (Lilly Freitas and Lexie Capote). With a roomful of killers, we only make each other better, and that’s what you saw.”
With the Austin sisters and Capote all expected to return next year and tons of state experience between them, Avalos believes the program is in good hands.
“I wish I was in the position that Baya and Gabby are in this early in their career. My freshman year, I placed fourth and I thought that was the most achieving thing. But a freshman and sophomore in the finals is huge. I didn't get that until my junior year. Without a doubt, they'll be champions the next few years. Even though they did come up a little short, they should still be very proud for what they've accomplished because it's huge. Lexie and the Austin’s are going to kill it next year,” Avalos said.
The ladies weren’t the only ones driving out of Bakersfield with hardware, though, as freshman Mason Ontiveros placed fifth in the boys 170-pound bracket. Like on the girls side, Vasconcelos believes that it bodes well for the future that someone so young was able to make a deep run like he did.
“Mason taking fifth as a freshman at 170 pounds, I don't think people realize how difficult that is. He was putting out seniors on the last day of the tournament to fight for his spot. But that's just Mason. He looks forward to wars, he wants challenges. Some people like to get easy wins and things like that, but Mason wants to test himself all the time, and I think that's what makes all of these wrestlers in our program special and separates them,” he said.
“It's insane to think that Baya, Gabby and Mason are puppies. If these kids lead the way that I know that they're going to for the next four years, three years; we could have an even better team than we had this year, and this is probably our best team we've ever had.”
And while banners and medals are great, Vasconcelos is most proud of the young adults his grapplers are becoming.
“Our boys ended up with a 3.69 GPA and our girls ended up with a 3.84 GPA. You know, these kids are becoming better human beings, and I think that's what it ends up coming down to,” he said. “These kids are setting up their future to go to school and get their school paid for, and that's the end goal… At the end of the day, that's what we do all this stuff for, to set these kids up for their lives. That’s what our program is all about. I’m a very proud coach right now.”