A foundation of hard work and dedication can be something that is called into question, especially with those two qualities being among the most overused and cliché terms in sports.
When it comes to the elite in sports, however, there is no other way to climb the mountain.
In wrestling, there is no place to hide. An individual’s hard work and dedication translate into skills that are to be used in a one-on-one battle for three two-minute periods. Make one mistake and the match could be over.
Fountain Valley High’s Max Wilner began wrestling in fourth grade, and he grew close to a number of teammates in Team Thunder, which fed into the Calvary Chapel wrestling program.
While many grade-school students would sleep in on Saturdays, Wilner got out of bed and gained inspiration from watching members of the Calvary Chapel team go to work.
Among them were twin brothers Justin (160 pounds) and Jeremy Thomas (170), who won their respective CIF State titles in 2016. Wilner’s brother, Morris, also medaled at 182, placing sixth that same year.
“[Morris] was a person that I always watched wrestle,” Wilner said. “I wouldn’t have to wake up at 9 a.m. to watch him, but I would. I always took stats for the high school guys. I would always sit by my coach and take stats.”
Wilner arrived at Fountain Valley after moving over to the Genesis Wrestling feeder program, and he announced at once that he had several lofty goals carved out for himself. As a freshman, Wilner said that he wanted to be a four-time league champion and a four-time CIF champion.
At the conclusion of his sophomore campaign, Wilner is halfway home to accomplishing those feats. He bumped up two weight classes from 145 to 160 this year, and he became a better offensive wrestler.
“I kind of stuck to the same game plan as last year,” Wilner said. “It was just more confidence this year. The stuff I was good at last year, I just kept training with that. I got those [skills] better, so no matter the situation, I was going to hit that move.”
The kid that was all-in for the team when he attended the state meet and took stats has applied the same philosophy to his workouts. His results dignify the work that he has put in.
“It’s a sport where it is kind of do-or-die,” Wilner said. “If you want to do it to get in shape, then don’t affiliate with the people that are trying to win a state title or be the best wrestler that they can be.
“You can do many other things to stay in shape, but the sport is like, if you’re going to do it, then you put your 100 percent into it.”
Wilner became Fountain Valley’s first Southern Section Masters Meet champion since Dean O’Bourke did it as a senior at 120 pounds in 2012.
The Fountain Valley camp believed that winning Masters would be enough to vault Wilner to the No. 3 ranked wrestler in the state, but he remained at No. 4. Wilner wound up facing Clovis Buchanan’s Matthew Olguin, the eventual state champion, in the semifinals.
In the consolation, Wilner bounced back with wins over Bellflower St. John Bosco’s Louis Rojas, a Masters finalist, and Bakersfield Frontier’s Max Aguirre, the very wrestler he had been trying to displace as the No. 3 seed to get into the bottom half of the main draw. He placed third.
After Masters, Wilner declared that he was going to try to win state, or at the very least, he would come home with a long bracket, traditionally handed out to the top four placers in each weight class. The brackets were only handed out to the champions this year, much to the chagrin of Wilner and others who were expecting to take them home after reaching the consolation finals or better.
“They took away the long bracket, which a lot of kids like to earn that,” Barons coach Dennis Piramo said. “I feel that they earned it and deserved it. I don’t know why they took it away. They should at least give it to the top three.
“I could see why Max would be upset not getting that.”
Even if the brackets continue to be handed out exclusively to the champions going forward, Piramo believes that Wilner, a two-time state qualifier, may still get one.
“As a freshman, you’re nervous,” Piramo said. “I don’t care what anyone says. You’re trying to prove yourself.
“Now that he is older, I think he really has these goals of becoming a state champion, and they’re going to come to fruition one day.”
Born: Oct. 8, 2002
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Height: 5 feet 10
Weight: 165 pounds
Coach: Dennis Piramo
Favorite food: Sushi
Favorite movie: “Game Over, Man!”
Favorite athletic moment: The sophomore’s favorite athletic moment came at this year’s state meet, where he medaled for the first time in his career. Wilner called it a proving ground for how far his work has taken him.
Week in review: Wilner earned the third-place medal in the 160-pound weight class at the CIF State wrestling championships on Feb. 23 at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield.