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Katella wrestling program enjoys 'spectacular' turnaround
You get the sense even Tom Ricci doesn’t know exactly how he got here.
As recently as last year, Katella’s wrestling program lay dormant, some 14 kids from a student body of more than 2,700 voluntarily spending their winters inside an unbearably hot, padded room run on sweat and guts.
Peter Ramirez was there, of course. As was Kim Perez.
“Wrestling’s about dedication and fire,” said Perez, a sophomore. “It’s not something you just join on a whim. It’s an individual sport that’s seen as a team sport. Do you want to get better? Are you willing to take that extra practice, that extra run, to get to where you want to be?”
Most kids weren’t.
So Ricci changed that.
This season, Katella can capture its first league wrestling championship in more than a decade. More importantly, 54 kids now wrestle for the program, including enough girls to make up the Orange League’s third girls team.
From winless in league the past two seasons to league favorites three weeks into January, where in the world did Katella come from?
“It’s pretty spectacular,” Ricci said.
Born into a military family, Ramirez loved watching professional wrestling as a child.
His father once upon a time wrestled at Santa Ana High, and as energetic as Ramirez was growing up with two older sisters, youth wrestling became the perfect hobby. With a room in his parents house reserved for roughhousing with others, the kid couldn’t be tossed around enough.
Ramirez wrestled through grade school, and later joined the Santa Ana Wolfpack Club, a breeding ground for local up-and-comers.
But one day, he said, his father began a lengthy construction project on their house. And with neither a room to roughhouse in nor a ride to weekly wrestling practice, Ramirez quit.
Two years passed. “I stopped missing it,” he said.
At his family’s behest, Ramirez began wrestling again in eighth grade. He returned to the Wolfpack and resumed his apprenticeship.
Shy as he said he was as a freshman, he performed admirably against older kids.
“I just couldn’t get into other sports,” Ramirez said. “Wrestling was what I was good at.”
Perez, meanwhile, also grew up a little sibling, the youngest of three daughters and older sister to one brother.
She remembers taking her share of sibling punishment as a child and liking it. She wound up playing football in junior high.
But as much as Perez loved competing, she hated running.
She recently wondered aloud why she started wrestling in the first place.
“I was out of shape, not wanting to run,” she said. “But the coach we had last year was pretty pushy. When I first came out, he told me: ‘You’re going to be one of the people who quits.’ I’m stubborn, so I was not quitting after that. I stuck around and put all my energy into it.
“And it was something I was pretty good at.”
Ramirez, now a fourth-year letter winner, and Perez both credit former Katella coach Victor Melara for his hand in their development.
Ramirez last year finished third at 126 pounds at the Orange League finals, but later advanced to Day 2 of the CIF-SS tournament, a career run. Perez last season placed second at her weight at the CIF-SS qualifier, but was disqualified from the ensuing CIF-SS Individual Championships due to a clerical error.
She returned this winter as a top 170-pounder.
“I have to wrestle guys,” said Perez, a 4.1 grade-point-average student taking three advanced placement classes this year. “But it’s helped me become so good. If I’m constantly getting beat by the guys, finally wrestling the girls is easy.”
An assistant football coach at Katella, Ricci succeeded Melara in the offseason. He called on his son, Thomas, to help coach.
Thomas Ricci graduated from Irvine High in 2014 with four wrestling letters under longtime coach John Phillips. A soft-spoken teenager with a left shoulder known for popping out of its socket unannounced, Thomas Ricci brought with him to Katella a calming, welcoming presence Ramirez and Perez said.
“I don’t yell,” Thomas said. “I know that might help a couple people, but it doesn’t help everybody.”
This fall, Tom Ricci pitched wrestling to football players as a way to stay in shape. Perez said she encouraged her peers to join.
Ramirez and Perez were named team captains.
“Peter’s brought so much to the table,” Thomas Ricci said. “He leads by example, and he wrestles everybody. He understands that no wrestler became great because he wrestled the same person every day.”
Most of Katella’s latest additions began with no previous experience, Tom Ricci said. Now, they’re winning dual meets against established programs.
On New Year’s Eve, more than 40 kids showed up to practice.
Two weeks later, Katella upset Magnolia, Orange League champions three years running. Two more wins, and these Knights make school history.
“I point to Peter,” Thomas Ricci said, “and I ask the others: ‘Is he good because he works hard? Or does he work hard because he’s good?’ I tell these kids that the only things you need to bring with you are attitude and effort.
“If you bring attitude and effort every day, wrestling becomes a lot easier.”
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