Benefield: Rancho Cotate wrestler Vickie Espinoza unstoppable her senior year

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Forgive Vickie Espinoza if she needed a moment. Just a moment to allow frustration, disappointment and yes, maybe a little self pity, wash over her.

It was a year ago that Espinoza, a heavyweight wrestler from Rancho Cotate, was 10 seconds away from a double-overtime win against the defending CIF state champ. And then her fingers slipped, she allowed the escape, and like that, it was done.

“The championship slipped through her fingers just like that,” Rancho Cotate wrestling coach Damien Mason said.

“I was a little bit irritated, upset. I totally pulled one of those crying in the shower things,” she said. “It took awhile for it to sink in that (second place) was pretty good.”

Fine. But pretty good wasn’t good enough for Espinoza this season.

The sting of that loss and the confidence gained by wrestling with the California Junior Women’s Freestyle team in USA Wrestling’s national tournament in North Dakota this summer launched Espinoza on a senior campaign of almost unbelievable achievement.

“When you look at her records, she amassed a body of work that I don’t know can be replicated,” Mason said. “Three-time NCS champ, two-time NBL champ, four-time state qualifier, finishing seventh, sixth, second and first.”

Want more? She was undefeated this season. Still more?

“Nobody scored a single point on Vickie. Nobody,” Mason said. “It was the most dominant performance by a wrestler I have ever seen.

“She’s a hammer, she just goes to work. She wasn’t taking no for an answer. I think somewhere deep down she just refused to have any other outcome than the championship and she started that journey last summer.”

Actually, she started that journey in eighth grade when she first tried the sport.

Her first opponent? Michelle Larsen of Petaluma.

Which makes last weekend’s state title a little more poignant.

Larsen, also a senior, was Espinoza’s very first foe in the sport of wrestling. As the crow flies, eight miles separate Rancho Cotate and Petaluma high schools, meaning in all of California, the best of the best in heavyweight wrestling live a joggable distance from each other.

“It was weird going into the finals against her because she was the first girl I ever wrestled. The first time I ever wrestled her was in middle school and the last time was in the state final,” Espinoza said. “She’s tough.”

Larsen put together an impressive run just to face her familiar foe.

She had a first-round bye but after that it was anything but easy. She beat section champs from the San Diego, Southern and Los Angeles City sections before facing her rival from down the road.

“I was already pretty happy that I had made it to the finals, so everything else was just extra,” Larsen said. “I’m glad if I lost, I lost to Vickie.”

Larsen’s coach, Mike Butts, has seen the evolution of Espinoza over the last five years. This is, after all, a kid who signed up for cross country as an underclassman at Rancho to help with her wrestling fitness.

“The Vickie we saw this year was a totally different girl than we saw in the past. Oh my god,” Butts said. “We couldn’t stop her blast double. The freight train double leg — she puts her hands behind your knees and knocks you on your ass.”

“I have all the respect for Vickie. She has a lot of class,” he said. “When it came to that weight group this year, there is not a girl in the nation at the high school level that is going to beat her. She is that athletic, that strong, that dominant.”

And in college? Butts expects Espinoza’s dominance to continue.

Espinoza is signed to compete for the Oklahoma City University Rams in college competition next fall, where the top weight is 189 pounds.

“If she goes to college and makes that 189, it’s quite possible she will become an Olympic champion. It’s scary,” Butts said.

Mason agreed.

“She has the potential to be an Olympic champion,” he said. “She found wrestling and wrestling found her. She has been rocking and rolling ever since.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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