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Wrestling Preview: La Cañada flying under the radar with plenty of promising talent

Photo Gallery: Hoover vs. La Canada in Rio Hondo wrestling
David Martoff is a key returner this season for the La Cañada High wrestling team.
(File Photo)

The La Cañada High wrestling team hasn’t lost much, but when one looks at the returning core of the squad, there aren’t many recognizable names.

But deep within the Spartans wrestling program are hidden gems that have worked endlessly over the summer and will hopefully surprise opponents throughout the season.

Regardless, after a season a year ago in which 13 wrestlers advanced to the CIF Southern Section Individual Championships, coach Justin Luthey and the team look for continued success.

The team will also look to take back the Rio Hondo League title, which was snatched away last season by rival San Marino.

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“First thing that comes to mind is that we want to win it,” said Luthey of the league title. “The two thoughts is that we want to win our league and duals. We want to send 14 guys to CIF. I think that’s on our minds, and it’s not just my mind. It’s something we talk about on a weekly basis — qualifying every weight into CIF and winning league. If those two things happen, I’m sure I’ll find things to be upset about, but I’m a happy coach at the end of season.”

Last year’s minor setback in falling short of the league title may have prompted increased motivation and dedication along the La Cañada camp.

The 13 wrestlers at the CIF finals last season also was an improvement from the record set one year prior (12), and the Spartans advanced two wrestlers to the CIF Masters Meet and one to the state championships.

Though half of those wrestlers have graduated, the depth of the Spartans roster provides about two athletes per weight division.

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“I really think we’re an underdog team,” Luthey said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of surprises out of this bunch. There could be a couple of guys and girls that could end up qualifying for Masters. I know in the room everyone feels very solid about it, for sure.

“Last year, we’re really talented. … This year’s team has been especially dedicated and hard-working. It’s probably the best off-season we’ve ever had.”

Whereas the varsity team experienced a hiccup, the junior varsity team succeeded, winning league titles in every weight class last season. Now, most of those have been promoted to the varsity team.

“The depth doesn’t necessarily just mean you have a bunch of varsity kids and then you have a million younger kids,” Luthey said. “We had a big, varsity talent team, too. When we’re talking about returners, I realized you don’t know these guys because they didn’t wrestle at CIF, they didn’t wrestle at finals and they probably wrestled at JV league meets.

“For us, they’ve been in the varsity room in the last couple of years, even though this is probably their first year starting.”

Returning to the upperweight divisions are seniors Ken Kim and league champion David Martoff.

“He didn’t wrestle at CIF, but that dude has transformed his body and has been working super hard,” said Luthey of Martoff, who was injured after the league finals and missed out of CIF competition. “His offseason has been great. He’s been wrestling on his own in tournaments. He’s really diving into the sport. He’s going to have a big year for us.”

In Kim, the Spartans have a veteran who has experience in the CIF dual meets.

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“He’s the ultimate eye-test guy,” Luthey said. “Martoff is hard-working, but Kim is the hardest working kid on our team and he does it in silence. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s been working really hard and he’s going to be really tough to beat.”

The Spartans will also return a pair of sophomores in 106-pounder Cameron Fernando and 126-pound league runner-up Alex Mykalo. The pair have also dabbled in tournaments in the offseason, with Fernando participating in a freestyle and Greco-Roman competition for the Los Angeles Wrestling Association in Fresno.

“What really ties them all together is what a great offseason they’ve had,” Luthey said. “All the wrestling they’ve done in tournaments and just the dedication they’ve had in club practices and during school practices with weightlifting, they’ve all improved so much.”

The most intriguing part of the team could be the girls’ wrestlers, who will be coached by the program’s most successful competitor in Sophie Garcia. Garcia was La Cañada’s first girls’ wrestler to advance to the CIF State Championships two years ago.

Garcia, who advanced to the round-of-16 in last season’s state competition, will help Luthey oversee four girls wrestlers. On the team are two promising freshmen in Eva Pariser and Kera Finnigan, who has two years of wrestling experience as well as two tournament victories.

“All the girls we have are underclasswomen,” Luthery said. “They share the same dedication as the boys. They haven’t missed anything either. I think they’re probably as likely to make it to Masters as the boys are.”

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