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PHOENIX — He's made it an annual pilgrimage, but this trip to Portland's Memorial Coliseum is different for Eleazar De Luca, a little more special.
For the Phoenix High senior, this weekend wraps up an important stage in his life and also opens a door to the next — and he'll carry mixed emotions to the mat because of the transition.
"It's definitely a bittersweet feeling," De Luca said heading into today's opening rounds. "I've come to realize these are the last matches I'll ever be wrestling for Phoenix High School, and it's been a good home for me. At the same time I feel like I've accomplished a lot for the program so it feels good. I'm really going to miss Phoenix High School and the coaches and the wrestling community
and everything about it. I just really want to end on a good note for everyone."
Few wrestlers have been as much of an ambassador for the sport than De Luca, and few have amassed a resume as impressive as the 18-year-old standout. Nationally ranked and winner of wrestling's Triple Crown two years ago, De Luca takes a No. 1 state ranking and 151-10 career record into today's opening match at 145 pounds against Tillamook's Dylan Hayes.
And, rest assured, squaring off against Hayes will be the only thing on De Luca's mind as he steps on the mat today, even though he's advanced to the championship final in each of his prior state tournaments.
"You've got to look at your first match and not look to the guy you think you'll wrestle in the finals because there's always a guy right in front of him that wants nothing more than to beat you," cautioned De Luca, who is 33-1 this year. "I'm going to take this tournament one match at a time. I'm going to wrestle Friday morning's match and then we'll take it from there."
That said, the 5-foot-9 Pirate's focus is to dominate every chance he gets this weekend.
"That's definitely the goal," said De Luca, "to go up and put on a great performance for my family. But I also know I'm going to need to stay on my toes so I don't get caught."
And with that one statement, you learn all you need to know about the affable wrestler. As good as De Luca is, he's constantly striving to be better.
"His whole mind-set is getting it to the next level and working on anything he needs to get there," said Phoenix head coach John Farmer.
Farmer has been able to watch De Luca's growth as a wrestler firsthand, observing his transition from an awestruck freshman eager for any morsel of advice he could glean from state champions he encountered to now being one of the prime figures in any wrestling circle.
"He just seems like he gets tougher and tougher every time he wrestles," said Farmer. "He's explosive, he keeps working on new things to finish shots and he just is pretty dominant when he walks out on the mat. He knows what he wants to do and he executes. He's not going to be denied in what he wants."
None of it has come without good ol' fashioned hard work. De Luca has spent countless hours honing his craft, traveling the state if he has to in order to get quality workouts. While some would consider themselves to be good enough, such a notion is foreign to De Luca.
"You've got to keep a balance," he insisted. "It's a mental thing, you can't rely on one area so much, you've got to always be working on things you're lacking. You've got to balance it out to get to the point where you're a great wrestler because you are so complete."
So how close is he to that point?
"I still have a long ways to go, definitely," he said. "The goal is to be an NCAA champion. That's what I'm looking for right now and maybe someday be an Olympic champion, but there's a long way to go to get there. I'm not even at the halfway point in my wrestling yet."
De Luca is still able to recognize the steps he's taken along the way, especially in his senior campaign.
"I've felt I've really grown this year as a wrestler and especially as a person," he said. "With my wrestling, I feel right now it's the best it's ever been and, as a person, I've really learned to appreciate people more, especially those on my wrestling team and all the coaches."
That appreciation goes both ways, according to Farmer.
"You start to take it for granted a little bit having him in the room," said the coach, "but then next year he's not going to be here and that makes you start realizing how important he has been to the rest of the team and their development."
"Now that it's coming to an end you start to realize we've had one of the best kids in the country in our room for the last four years," added Farmer. "We've been spoiled here with Nick and Luke Amuchastegui then and now Eleazar. We fell into this almost like it's normal but it's not normal, and we're going to know that pretty soon."
Nick Amuchastegui was a state champion at Phoenix and finished as the national runner-up for Stanford last season, while Luke Amuchastegui followed in his brother's footsteps and joined him as a state champ and Cardinal wrestler.
De Luca said both wrestlers had a tremendous influence on him, along with his mat club coach Sean Willis. He gained inspiration from the Amuchastegui brothers, who showed that it was possible to compete at Phoenix and still achieve national notoriety and a Division I scholarship. In that vein, it's with great pride that De Luca has announced he has committed to wrestle in college at Arizona State and plans to finalize the paperwork in March.
"I've worked my whole life for this one thing," he said. "It's an amazing feeling to have finally accomplished a goal you've had for so long."
He hopes to experience similar euphoria sometime in the early evening on Saturday, but he'll be just as thrilled to relish the efforts of his teammates and other good friends competing alongside him at the state tournament. For De Luca, there's simply no better place to be and no finer sport to participate in.
"I'm a wrestler, I will never be anything else but a wrestler," he said. "That's who I am as a person. If I go off somewhere and get a job someday, it doesn't matter what I do, I'm still going to be a wrestler in my heart."
And a champion, on and off the mat.