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High school wrestling: Toughness, maturity propel Chestatee's Angel Garduno to the top
Chestatee's Angel Garduno. Photo by Bill Murphy

If there is one quality that amateur wrestling coaches value about their athletes above all else, it’s toughness.

It’s a quality that Chestatee’s Angel Garduno has definitely demonstrated both physically and emotionally throughout his career on the mat.

Along with leadership, it’s also a quality that could be a big key for the 157-pound junior and his teammates as the War Eagles begin their quest for the Class 4A state wrestling dual meet title, beginning with a first-round matchup in the one-day tournament Saturday at Lovett School in Atlanta.

Chestatee coach Scott DeGraff says he’s seen the toughness in Garduno since a few years before he actually joined the War Eagles’ varsity program as a freshman in the 2020-21 campaign.

“Angel wrestled in our middle school program,” DeGraff recalled. “He was not a starter in seventh or eighth grade, but he was a kid that continued to show up every time the doors were open. His freshman year, he came out (and) was probably right around a .500 wrestler, and did OK for us. He was in our starting lineup as a freshman.

“His sophomore year last year, … he just kept coming back. Last year, he got to sectionals (in the state traditional meet), and I’m pretty sure his hand was broken. He taped it up, wrestled through sectionals and was able to sweep through and get through sectionals. He got to state and placed fifth.”

Indeed, there is probably no better example of Garduno’s physical toughness than last year’s Class 3A state traditional sectionals and championship tournament by continuing to wrestle with the injured hand.

However, it’s an injury he freely admits was of his own doing.

“At the sectionals, I was in the semis, and I do remember having a talk with Coach DeGraff before (that) tournament,” Garduno remembered. “He told me that if I made the sectional finals, I could have a chance to get top three at state. So when I was in the semis, I ended up losing 4-2 to some Marist dude. I really was angry with myself because I’d never made it to a final of any individual tournament (before). … So I just let my anger out against the wall.

“I didn’t really want to get it checked out because I knew if it did turn out to be bad, I wouldn’t be able to wrestle at the state tournament, and I didn’t want to mess that up. So I really just kept it a secret and I told my coaches, ‘I’m good. I’m fine.’ I would just ice it. Later on, it started getting better.”

As many other athletes who have had a physical conflict with a wall, Garduno found out quickly that the wall always wins.

However, the silver lining was that it turned out to be an important learning experience in his emotional maturation process, in addition to being a test of his physical toughness.

As far as the former is concerned, there have been other tests Garduno has had to pass to become more mature both on and off the mat.

His biggest on the mat test was overcoming his own self doubt, something last year’s run to the podium at the state traditional meet helped began, though it only served as a wake-up call that he needed to take even more seriously than he already was.

“I really didn’t think I was that good until I qualified for state,” Garduno said. “That’s when I realized, ‘Wow, this is it. It’s now or never.’ Wrestling at the state tournament, I knew I couldn’t just throw the tournament away. Placing fifth was a great feeling at first, but then I realized I could get better, and I just worked harder. I told myself that next year, I need to be at the top of the podium.

“I started going to Oso (Sports Wrestling Club in Gainesville in the offseson). I (also started wrestling some) freestyle. All my coaches told me, and Coach DeGraff told me, that freestyle would help a lot with folk(style). So, I did it, and I just did a lot of offseason practice with Oso, and also on my own. Also, Coach DeGraff had some open mat, and I took advantage of those (sessions).”

But a bigger test to his emotional development and maturity is one that literally has hit closer to home.

When his 3-year-old brother Yahir was diagnosed with cancer a little over two years ago, it was quite a jolt.

Fortunately, Yahir seems to have responded well to treatment, and seeing how his whole family has responded has proven to be an extra motivator for him to give his all wrestling.

“I knew if I kept worrying about it, I wouldn’t do (well on the mat),” Garduno said. “I’m not saying I don’t worry about it (at all). Of course, I do. (Yahir is) one of the reasons I keep going – for him, for my family. I don’t want to let them down. I want to accomplish stuff for me and my family.

“Every time on the mat, I pray … for my family to be good, for my teammates and for myself and that God be by my side and to not give up and give it my all for him.”

Garduno has accomplished quite a bit on the mat this season, posting a 30-5 record and being a stalwart for Chestatee from 157-pound slot during dual meets that has been a key to the War Eagles’ 34-3 duals record.

And as DeGraff points out, he has come up big at some of the most important times of the duals portion of the 2022-23 season thus far.

In addition to getting two pinfall victories in wins over Starr’s Mill (66-12) and Perry (51-18) in last week’s sectional meet at Chestatee, DeGraff says Garduno’s most important moment came a week earlier during the finals of the Region 8-4A duals championships against North Oconee.

“We were in a dogfight early on against North Oconee in the region finals,” DeGraff said. “We got to (the) 157 (match), and I want to say (the meet score) was 15-15 (at the time). He comes out, and I turned around and looked him in the eye and said, ‘Are you ready to turn this thing around?’

“He said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he went out there and pinned (his opponent) in the first period. That got us rolling, and from there, we didn’t look back. Those are the kind of things he does for us. … (His teammates) know he’s a grinder, and they like that. He’s the guy who will rally the troops a little bit when it’s time. They look up to him.”

Those kinds of things are also what prompted the War Eagles to elect Garduno as one of the team’s captains for this season.

It’s a responsibility that he not only takes seriously, but one he says he relishes for his teammates, whom he considers his second family.

“Wrestling is such a great sport. I’ve made so many bonds. We’ve all come closer together. We treat each other like brothers and sisters. If there’s a problem, we settle it as a team.

“It’s great being one of the captains. That just shows that people do look up to me, and I want to be an example and be a leader and to help one another and not give up on each other.”

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