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Cooper, Pelayo named Couriers Athletes of the Year
Jaden Cooper enjoyed a success-filled final season with Ceres Highs varsity boys wrestling program. Cooper posted a 30-8 overall record, qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championships, and claimed titles at the Division-IV, WAC and Mike Tamana tournaments. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Ceres High's Jaden Cooper and Central Valley's Nayeli Pelayo have been named the Courier's Male and Female Athletes of the Year, respectively, for the 2017-18 winter sports season.

Cooper (boys wrestling) and Pelayo (girls wrestling) both leave behind incredible legacies.

Already considered Central Valley's all-time greatest female wrestler, Pelayo added to her resume by becoming the varsity girls program's first state medalist.

The 189-pound senior compiled a 4-3 record on her way to a sixth-place finish at the CIF State Championships this past month in Visalia.

Nayeli assured herself a medal after upsetting Golden Valley's Kayvette Osorio by first-round pin.

"My goal was to make it onto the podium," Pelayo said. "When I found out I was going to medal, I started crying. I worked really hard to get to where I'm at. This is one of my best achievements in any sport that I've played. It's still hard to believe."

"I personally would have loved to see her become a state champion," Hawks' coach Rob Beckhart said. "If she had one more year, she could have been. She progressed every year. She was consistent."

A member of Central Valley's girls wrestling team since her sophomore year, Pelayo qualified for state three times and captured back-to-back Western Athletic Conference individual titles.

Nayeli's crowning achievement was bringing home a sixth-place medal from Visalia.

"She doesn't have a mean bone in her body," Beckhart said. "When she goes out there to wrestle, you'd never know that. She's feisty. She's a fighter. That's what you want your kids to be."

Pelayo filled a key role as the Hawks reached unprecedented heights by winning the 2018 WAC tournament and dual-meet titles.

"I wanted to make history my last year at Central Valley," she said. "I had a great season. Our girls team won WAC. That's a plus, too."

"We were lucky to have Nayeli on the team," Beckhart said. "She was the heart of our program. It's difficult to find someone that dedicated. She's humble and respectful. She's a good person. She was instrumental in us winning the WAC title this year. She recruited other girls to wrestle for us. We're going to miss her."

Pelayo and Central Valley's varsity softball team won three of four games while finishing in second place in the Silver Bracket at the Rainbow Field Preseason Classic last week.

"She's already been offered two wrestling scholarships," Beckhart said. "I don't know what she's going to do."

A fourth-year member of Ceres High's varsity boys wrestling program, Cooper enjoyed his best season to date this winter.

"Every year, he got better," Ceres High head coach Steve Festa said. "He didn't have early success. Patience was the key. He was willing to learn. He had a great work ethic. He showed up early and left late. It was an honor to coach him. He's one of the best wrestlers to ever come out of Ceres High."

Jaden compiled a 30-8 overall record during his final year with the Bulldogs.

"For the most part, I'm satisfied with how my season went," said Cooper, who concluded his wrestling career with a 1-2 showing in the 145-pound weight division at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Championships. "I pretty much achieved all of my goals, except for qualifying for state."

Cooper finished in first place at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-IV Championships.

"I was tired of taking second," said Jaden, runner-up as a junior and sophomore. "It was definitely one of my best tournaments. I wrestled very aggressive, especially my finals match."

Cooper also earned a measure of redemption by winning the title at the conference finals. He placed second in 2017 and fourth during his sophomore year.

Jaden helped Ceres High claim its second consecutive team title at the WAC tourney.

He also made history by becoming the Bulldogs' first individual champion at the Mike Tamana Tournament. He was awarded the 145-pound championship belt at the conclusion of the Modesto Junior College hosted event.

"I was really determined to achieve my goals," Cooper said. "I surprised myself with how I did. I had a rough start. I barely made varsity freshmen year. I was told I had potential. I was athletic. I wasn't very good. I knew if I kept working hard, I'd get the results I wanted."

Jaden trained up to five hours a day his senior year.

He dedicated time to lifting weights and running on top of regular practices.

"It was tiring but my passion and drive to achieve my goals kept me going," he said. "My confidence came from my hard work."

Added Festa: "To be the best, you got to be different. He was doing things he needed to do when nobody was looking."

Cooper was Ceres High's team captain for the past three years. "His peers voted for him," Festa stated. "It was unanimous. That says a lot. He's a great person and athlete. He's very humble. He's fun to be around."

Cooper plans to focus on academics in college.

"I'm definitely going to miss it," he said. "I'm going to come back to Ceres High and help out."

"The experiences he's had in wrestling will help him be a success in life," Festa said.