Irvine's tough little man: Tran-tastic

Two words, two little words.

Mention those words to a high school wrestler and watch his eyes light up.

State meet.

It's the ultimate goal — other than winning it, of course — of every high school wrestler. But the road to the CIF State Championship Meet is long and bumpy, treacherous and winding. And for most, that road ends with a dead end before reaching that final destination.

Irvine High's 103-pounder Nam Tran got there, wrestling Friday in Bakersfield at Rabobank Arena. He finished the meet with one win and two losses, and he was eliminated on the first day.

Getting there, though, was a major victory all by itself. He was the only Irvine area wrestler among the city's five high schools to qualify, placing ninth at the CIF Masters Meet Feb. 26 in Temecula.

The top nine at Masters qualify, meaning Tran needed every last ounce of effort to make it.

In fact, Tran's Masters Meet was a remarkable display of will and determination, considering how close he teetered on the brink of elimination.

In the ninth-place match — meaning winner goes to state, loser is done for the season — Tran wrestled Gary Howe of Los Alamitos High. At the end of three periods, the score was tied, 0-0.

"All the other medal matches at 103 had finished up, so the entire crowd was watching Tran's match," Irvine High wrestling coach John Phillips said. "Then the announcer says, 'The winner goes to state and the loser goes home.' It made it that much more exciting."

In the first round of overtime, both wrestlers start on their feet; first takedown wins. But Tran and Howe went the one-minute period without scoring. The next stage of overtime is two 30-second periods, with each wrestler getting his choice to start on top, on bottom, or neutral. Tran chose down in the second overtime period and managed an escape for a 1-0 lead.

In the final overtime period, Howe chose down, but Tran rode him out for the 30 seconds and a 1-0 victory. And, an all-expenses-paid trip to Bakersfield.

"I heard that announcer, but at first I didn't know he was talking about my match," said Tran, a junior who finished with a 45-11 record. "Then I looked at the scoreboard and it said 0-0, so I knew it was me, and I just went after it."

Although that match was the culmination of a long, tough tournament, Tran faced elimination in three other matches in the meet after going to the consolation bracket.

He beat Brian Zavala of Los Osos, 8-4, then beat Luis Ortiz of Magnolia, 2-1. His next match would have guaranteed him a top-eight finish, but he lost, 6-2, to Anthony Soto of Colony. That put him in a position where he had to win his next two matches, or he was finished for the season.

He came through with a 3-2 win over Richie Taira of Walnut, which set him up with Los Al's Howe.

"He really stepped up when the pressure was on him," Phillips said. "It's an important ingredient, competing with everything on the line … three matches on the edge. … He imposed his will to win."

Even though Tran didn't have any teammates with him at state, he did have a friend in Calvary Chapel 103-pounder Gordon McDonald.

In the Orange County Wrestling Coaches Assn. final poll, McDonald was ranked No. 1 in Orange County at 103, Tran No. 2. They faced each other four times during the season, each winning twice.

At Masters, McDonald qualified for state by placing eighth.

"I don't like to wrestle him because we're friends," Tran said.

Tran also has rolled with his older brother, Thien, who himself qualified for state as a junior a few years ago. Thien got injured during his senior year and didn't make it back to state, but Nam hopes to use his state experience as a stepping stone.

"This year I want to feel things out," Tran said before the meet. "See how it feels to be at state and come back better next year."

Phillips said he sees no reason why that can't happen.

"He's a good athlete, very skilled," Phillips said. "He's not long and lean, a lot of kids he's wrestling are taller because they're coming down from 115. Nam wrestles what he weighs; he's about 105. He's small but he's a well-built young man. He's definitely a smart wrestler; he goes out with a strategy."

Off the mat, Tran is just like any other teenager, hanging out with friends and playing video games.

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