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Lathrops Garcia takes aim at elusive state berth
Lathrop High standout Alex Garcia is making his final appearance in the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters tournament today at Stockton Arena. It will be his also chance at qualifying for the CIF State Championships for the first time.

LATHROP — It’s now or never for Alex Garcia, a wrestler with a rich bloodline and one glaring omission on an otherwise sparkling resume.

Raised on the mat and coached by his uncles, Garcia, a mighty mite in the 120-pound weight division, is one of the area’s most decorated and talented wrestlers.

Still, his first three varsity seasons have ended prematurely in the postseason, the last two one step shy of a teen-aged wrestler’s ultimate pursuit — state.

The Sac-Joaquin Section Masters tournament begins today at the Stockton Arena with 448 wrestlers across 14 weight divisions all vying for a trip to Bakersfield, the site of the CIF State Championships.

To punch your ticket, a wrestler must finish in the top-6 of their weight class.

“He knows going in that this is it,” said Spartans head coach Vince Garcia, a former sub-section qualifier at Manteca High and Garcia’s uncle. “He’s self-motivated. We don’t have to keep on him about it. It’s go time. You either do it or you go home.”

Garcia, who has been training at Central Catholic this week with a host of former state champions and collegiate wrestlers, figures to be in the mix at 120 pounds.

He’s ranked 26th in state, according to The California Wrestler, and seventh-best in the Sac-Joaquin Section with a 25-6 record.

In each of the last two weeks, beginning in the finals at the Valley Oak League championships, Garcia has wrestled second-ranked Nico Colunga of Oakdale tough in losses.

Colunga is also fourth in the latest state rankings.

“He lifted weights the whole summer and put on 25 pounds of muscle. He knows he’s one of the strongest on the mat. He’s not the smallest anymore,” Vince said of his star pupil. The two began working together when Garcia was 5.

“He knows he can hang with anybody.”

Fulfilling that promise, though, has been an issue.

Garcia has qualified for Masters each of the last two seasons, but each trip was dashed by a bad draw, shaky confidence or an unfortunate injury.

In 2013, he won his first two matches at 106 pounds, but lost to eventual champion Gionn Peralta of Vacaville and was knocked into the consolation bracket. He lost his next match to Elk Grove’s Triston Scott, who finished fifth.

Last year, Garcia suffered a head injury in an opening round loss to Napa’s Jonvan Lucero. Though he rallied with a victory over Antelope’s Alfonso Linarez, Garcia’s tournament was stopped one match later.

“As a wrestler, you always have to learn from your mistakes,” Garcia said. “I’ve corrected a lot of the little, tiny things I did my junior year that’s made me better as a senior.”

This will be his last chance to return the family name to Bakersfield, where assistant coach and uncle Benny Garcia finished with a medal in 2004.

Benny was a star wrestler at Manteca High and finished fifth at the state tournament. He went on to become Delta College’s first-ever state champion.

That legacy has followed Garcia throughout his prep career, but the pressure has dissipated over the years. Garcia has turned the focus on his future — not his family’s past.

“There was pressure before during my freshman and sophomore years. I always looked at it like ‘these are my great uncles with everything they did in high school’,” Garcia said. “But seeing as this is my last year and my life, I’ve really put the focus on me and what I can do to make myself better.”

Vince and Benny know this about their nephew, with his sharp cheek bones and high wrestling IQ: He has more talent than both of them ever had.

“I don’t think there’s too much pressure to be better than any of us,” Vince said. “He knows, skill-wise, he’s better than Benny and I ever were. Other coaches and people that used to watch us wrestle, they’ve even told him his skill level has surpassed ours.”

That talent has revealed itself in big matches this season.

Garcia defeated Lincoln’s Alex Olivera, ranked eighth and a veteran of the state tournament, during a fourth-place finish at the Tim Brown Memorial.

“That gave me a big boost of confidence,” he said.

He’s also collected tournament titles at the Modesto Junior College and Ceres invites.

“Knowing he was smaller, he always felt young. He needed to see that he’s able to wrestle the better guys. Not just skill-wise, but physically and mentally,” Vince said. “He was always really good until he got to a certain level – Masters, where he’d face the 1 through 5 guys.

“He never thought he could hang, but now that he’s beaten some of them, it’s like ‘Yeah, now I can do this.’ ”

The wars with Colunga have also given Garcia confidence that he can grapple with the section’s elite and become the first boys’ wrestler in school history to clinch a state berth. He’ll be joined at Masters by one other Spartan — 126-pounder Chris Garcia, no relation.

“This is the best year I’ve wrestled,” Alex Garcia said. “This is the best I’ve looked since I’ve been in high school, so it’s looking pretty good going into Masters.”