Delfino Ochoa had defeated some devilishly tough wrestlers, but now he was grappling with demons of another sort.
It was the day of the 1989 Southern California regional, and Ochoa, then a Moorpark College freshman, was in hiding--from his coach and the pain that pierced him like St. Sebastian’s arrows.
Ochoa had wrestled in pain throughout the season. The small finger of his left hand came out of socket at least a half-dozen times, and his knee cartilage was so seriously torn it would require surgery.
But this was too much. The pain of trying to drop four pounds in a matter of hours to meet his 118-pound limit was becoming too much to bear.
Ochoa, craving food or a drink, was wearing three pairs of socks and two plastic suits covered by a sweat shirt and a jacket.
Finally, Ochoa lay down on the soothingly cool tile of the shower-room floor. That eased his feverish burning, but the shower heads were mocking him.
“I broke,” Ochoa said.
In John Keever’s 21 years as coach, only one Moorpark College wrestler had ever missed weight. Now Ochoa was missing altogether. Missing weight no longer mattered to Ochoa. He was quitting then and there. The sacrifice just was not worth it anymore.
Eventually Keever tracked down Ochoa and urged him not to give up. Ochoa’s teammates and coaches goaded him back into motion. He made weight with minutes to spare.
“You’ve got to be strong up here,” Ochoa said, pointing to his head. “That day I just snapped because you’re going through all this pain to make the weight.”
Ochoa finished second in that regional and since then has endured fewer tribulations making weight. He went on to win the state title at 118. He enters the final rounds of the state tournament today at Cypress College ranked No. 1 in the 126-pound division, a key to top-ranked Moorpark’s bid for its first team championship.
Ochoa beat Darren Uyematsu of El Camino, 9-2, in the second round Friday to improve his record to 30-4-1. He will meet Brandon Keosky of Cuesta in the semifinals today.
Ochoa has succeeded despite moving up a weight class and competing with an injury to his left arch that has left him limping. Wrestling at 126 pounds, he watches his diet less and his back more.
“I can’t get lazy,” Ochoa said. “I can’t get lackadaisical. A lot of the guys are just massive. When I walk out there, it’s like David and Goliath. . . . I’m just quicker on my feet than they are.”
Ochoa would have been a strong favorite for a second consecutive title at 118 pounds, but Keever believed moving Ochoa up in weight would help the team even if Ochoa did not win an individual title at 126.
Keever wanted to switch Ochoa and Billy Scannell, who wrestled at 126 last season, on the theory that the slighter Scannell would do markedly better at 118 and Ochoa would hold his own at 126. Scannell is ranked No. 2 at 118.
Ochoa not only gave up a chance to repeat at 118 but also moved into the domain of bigger and stronger wrestlers, including Orlando Montero of Cerritos, the defending state champion at 126.
“He made a big-time sacrifice for our team,” Keever said.
It was a move at which others might have balked, but Ochoa said: “It benefits the team more.”
At 5-foot-3 and 126 pounds, Ochoa is relatively stocky for a wrestler in a lower-weight class. Although he gives up height to his opponents, he holds his own in strength and has bench-pressed more than 300 pounds.
If Ochoa makes a good showing at 126 pounds, Keever believes that will make him even more attractive to four-year colleges as a 118-pounder. However, going back to 118 will be a painful move for a guy whose weight fluctuates between 137 and 140 in the off-season.
“I like food. I love eating,” said Ochoa, who has figured out that he loses a pound and a half every night in his sleep.
“Brownies, burritos, Chinese food,” Ochoa says wistfully as he lists his favorites. “Basically, I like junk food.”
Coaches discourage roller-coaster weight swings, but living at home presents Ochoa with the nearly irresistible temptation of his mother’s cooking. Keever’s lectures on proper eating habits give Ochoa food for thought, but he still thinks a lot about food.
Had Ochoa disregarded the advice of his father and Keever and not continued wrestling, he could eat all the food he wanted. After graduating from Hueneme High, Ochoa planned to work, but his father was pushing him to go to college and Keever was recruiting him.
At Hueneme, Ochoa won three Channel League wrestling championships and was a classmate of Freddie Bradley, the standout tailback on Moorpark’s football team.
“I was always the smallest one in school,” Ochoa said. “My freshman year, people used to pick on me, and Fred would be there saying, ‘Hey, leave him alone’. . . . I’d be right behind Fred just saying, ‘Yeah, leave me alone.’ ”
If Bradley is the big man on the Moorpark campus, then Ochoa is the big little man on campus. That’s fine with Keever, who believes he would have lost Ochoa to another sport if Ochoa were taller.
“I wanted to play basketball,” Ochoa said. “When I got to high school, everybody just sprouted, and I was still the same size. I went out for the freshman team, and every time I tried to shoot, somebody just swatted it.”
Ochoa might not be a Spud Webb, but he is one of the best athletes at Moorpark.
Chances are he will not be found lying on the shower-room floor today, but don’t be surprised if he sends an opponent to an early shower.