ELOY — Before the season began, Santa Cruz Valley coach Ray Belloc made sure his team understood that the target was on its back this season after winning the Division IV state championship last year.
The Dust Devils have risen to the challenge and repeated as Division IV Section III champions last week, finishing with 257 points, well ahead of second-place American Leadership Academy-Gilbert North, which had 175.
Santa Cruz had six wrestlers finish first at sectionals, three took second, one third and two fourth.
Last year the Dust Devils walked away with a load of first-place hardware from the tournaments they participated in. Although they haven’t garnered as many first-place trophies this season, it isn’t for a lack of effort. Rather they have faced tougher competition, which has included defending state champions in the other divisions, such as Peoria Liberty and Tucson Sunnyside.
“That’s what we need,” Belloc said. “We want to be the best, we gotta beat the best, and we fell short in a few of those tournaments. But I think if we met each team head-to-head it would be something different. Next year we already have a commitment from Sunnyside to meet us whether it’s here at home or in Tucson at their house, so we’re really looking forward to that.”
Following their fourth-place finish in the Mile High Challenge earlier this month, Santa Cruz placed third in the Peoria Invitational behind Liberty and Sunnyside.
On Jan. 24, the team traveled to Payson for the Tim Van Horne Memorial Wrestling Invitational that featured 20 schools. The Dust Devils scored 381 points behind Mesa Red Mountain (406), Gilbert Williams Field (438) and Marana Mountain View (625).
“It’s just made every wrestler in here tougher,” Belloc said. “Again, you want to be the best, you have to go out there and wrestle the best. Those hard-grind matches are what get us to the next level. With that being said, I believe we’re there. … Hopefully they’re going to peak at the right time.”
Going into sectionals, Belloc was unsure of who would wrestle at the 120- and 132-pound weight classes.
Derek Guanajuato, Joaquin Jimenez and Juan Flores battled it out and Guanajuato represented the Dust Devils in the 120 group, and Jimenez wrestled at 132.
Santa Cruz’s three individual state champs from last year are in top shape, with Emilio Ysaguirre at 126 and Diego Chavez at 182 having lost only two matches each and Davian Guanajuato at 115 undefeated with a 39-0 record.
The Dust Devils have three other wrestlers with fewer than five defeats in Daniel Guanajuato at 106, Wyatt Ogle at 138, who finished fourth at state last year, and Hunter Ogle at 160, a state bronze medalist.
The goal this year for Santa Cruz is to repeat as state champs. With how the individual wrestlers finished at sectionals last week, the pressure is on as the Dust Devils head to Prescott to compete Friday and Saturday.
“I’d hate to call it like that, but if things happen the way we hope they will happen, but I do see it happening,” Belloc said. “I’m pretty confident; the kids are doing outstanding. They’re putting in the work. They’re grinding. They’re showing it in the matches and the tournaments that they’re wrestling in, and with these wins and losses, we’re learning something. They’ve been there. They know when to step it up, and I think we’re going to do just fine.”