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Bulldog grappler Santibanez finishes in top 12 at Masters Championships
Ceres Highs Morales compiles 1-2 record
Ceres High junior Abel Morales posted a 1-2 record while competing in the 195-pound division at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Wrestling Meet. - photo by DALE BUTLER/The Courier

Nick Santibanez was lost and had no direction prior to becoming a member of Ceres High School's wrestling program as a sophomore in 2011-12.

Nick put on his Bulldog singlet for the final time last week.

Santibanez, along with Ceres High teammate Abel Morales, competed at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championships, staged Feb. 28-March 1 at Stockton Arena.

"You always want to strive for more," head coach Steve Festa said. "We wanted to continue our season. They did their best and represented our school in a good manner. I couldn't be more prouder."

Nick compiled a 3-2 record en route to a top-12 finish in the 126-pound weight class.

The top seven individuals in each division advanced to the CIF State Meet.

"I wish I could have gotten further," Santibanez said. "I don't have any regrets. I worked really hard."

Nick defeated Rosemont's Stanley Ojano (pin, 5:49), Bella Vista's Brennen Collins (forfeit) and Inderkum's Ruben Escalante (pin, 2:23).

He lost to Turlock's Rafael Herrera (pin, 0:41) and Oakdale's Max Stevens (decision, 5-3).

Herrera (seventh place) qualified for State, while Stevens (eighth) was named an alternate.

Santibanez was the lone senior on this year's team.

Nick placed first at the WAC Tournament and second at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-IV Championships. He also secured his second berth to Masters.

"We got to keep it in perspective," Festa said. "He didn't start wrestling until his sophomore year in high school. He competed at a high level. He's one of the best wrestlers to come out of Ceres. He's so talented. He's committed. He got better every year. He's a fun guy to be around. He kept his priorities in line. It hasn't been a smooth road. He had to spend additional time making sure he's on track with his school work."

Santibanez was academically ineligible during his freshman year. He also struggled in the classroom in junior high.

"I'm satisfied with everything I accomplished," he said. "I couldn't have done it without my coaches, teammates, family and friends. To be honest, wrestling is what made me keep my grades up. It changed my life. It taught me to work hard and never give up no matter how difficult the challenge gets."

Morales, a 195-pound junior, posted a 1-2 record.

Abel defeated Rosemont's Marcus Hudson (decision, 7-5).

He lost to Franklin of Elk Grove's Joey Banks (decision, 10-5) and Yuba City's West McMahon (major decision, 15-5).

Morales challenged Banks, the eventual champion. He trailed by just two points heading into the final period.

"Abel proved he belonged there," Festa said. "He competed with the best. I believe he has the ability to be a state wrestler next year."

Morales took first at the WAC finals and third at Divisionals.