17 Jan 19
The Mercury News
GILROY — When Daniel Cormier accepted Gilroy High’s offer last spring to become the head coach of the school’s storied wrestling program, the skeptical perception was, “Yeah, right.”
The UFC star has more than 700,000 followers on Twitter, was months away from winning the heavyweight championship and is on target for one more major bout as he approaches his 40th birthday, possibly against Brock Lesnar.
How would Cormier have the time or motivation to walk into a sweaty and cramped high school wrestling room every day and coach a bunch of teenagers?
Was this all for show?
“I honestly thought the same thing,” said senior Ryan Reyes, a transfer from Clovis West who is ranked No. 1 in the state at 195 pounds by the California Wrestler. “I had other people telling me, ‘Do you really think he’s going to be in the room every day?’ But, honestly, it’s great. He is so invested into us.”
The only show thus far is the dominance Gilroy continues to display on the mat. Five weeks from the California Interscholastic Federation state championships in Bakersfield, the Mustangs are ranked No. 1 in the Central Coast Section and No. 2 in the state.
Gilroy has two wrestlers at No. 1 in the state rankings (Reyes and 285-pounder Nick Villarreal) and another at No. 2 (Chase Saldate at 138).
“The season’s been phenomenal,” Cormier said while sitting in the wrestling room’s closet-sized office. “They’ve trained hard. They’ve listened. They’ve worked really, really hard. I don’t think I could have ever hoped for a better first season, and we’re not even done yet. To say that we’ve truly identified ourselves as one of the Top 10 teams in the country and one of the teams that can compete for a state title is amazing.”
Cormier’s presence is commanding. His voice booms and whistle pierces as he shares knowledge honed from a wrestling career that includes NCAA finalist while at Oklahoma State and 2008 Olympic team captain.
Sit through a two-hour practice in Gilroy’s refurbished wrestling room — credit Cormier for the new-look digs — and there is no mistaking who’s in charge.
The man known as DC is non-stop go from the moment he arrives until the second he leaves. He even pulled out a megaphone to shout a few more words before exiting into a wet and cold night.
“That’s him, that’s his coaching style,” the Fresno State-bound Reyes said, pointing to the man pushing a siren button while speaking into the megaphone. “He’s super tough. But at the end of the day, he’s like my dad. He’s like a father figure to me. I feel like he’s more than a coach. He’s just a real good person all the way around. I sort of just look at him as Daniel Cormier. That’s just my friend, my mentor and the guy in my corner, helping me.”
Cormier obviously walked into an ideal situation. Gilroy has won an unprecedented 16 consecutive CCS team championships, the first seven under Armando Gonzalez Sr., the last nine under Greg Varela.
Last season, the Mustangs captured 10 of the 14 weight divisions at the CCS finals, shattering the team points record, and placed second to Buchanan-Clovis at state.
Varela stepped down shortly after the season and eventually was named the head coach at Los Gatos, a move that was anything but smooth because it involved the removal of a popular coach, Ricardo Garcia, and backlash from Garcia’s supporters who claimed Varela was lured to Los Gatos by wealthy families.
Cormier’s hiring was greeted with national headlines and questions about the specifics.
“I was interested in how it was going to go as far as practices and schedule because he’s still fighting,” said the Michigan State commit Saldate, whose family is neighbors with Cormier and his family. “I wasn’t sure how time was going to go. But I really like it. The schedule we’re on is almost like next-level. It’s almost like college-level stuff. We’re getting way better, and we’re not super tired or burned out.”
Cormier has his team eyeing the state’s biggest prize. Gilroy has state-ranked wrestlers in eight of the 14 weight classes and No. 1-ranked wrestlers in nine weight divisions in the CCS.
The Mustangs are a virtual shoo-in to claim another section team crown and possibly break the scoring record of 373.5 points that they set last season.
For more Bay Area high school sports coverage follow Bay Area Preps on Flipboard.
But Cormier is aiming for more.
“Look, we’re chasing Buchanan again,” he said. “They look tough. They look very tough. But I wouldn’t trade one kid on this team for anyone else. I believe through the work and the schedule that we’ve put out and we’ve tried to follow throughout the season, we’ll peak at the right time.
“I still feel like we’re wrestling well but still not at the place that we need to be to win a state title because it’s not time for that yet. That’s mid-February. In mid-February we’ll be peaking and ready to go compete for a state title.”
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 03: Daniel Cormier of the United States (top) fights against Derrick Lewis of the United States in their heavyweight title bout during the UFC 230 event at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
There is no hiding Cormier from the masses. He is big, strong and extremely popular. When he walks into a high school gym, people notice and want a piece of his time.
“You have the door person asking for a photo with him, kids crowding around,” said Gilroy principal Marco Sanchez, who like Cormier is a former Olympic wrestler. “They want to talk with him. He spends a few minutes doing that, but then refocuses and gets the team ready to roll. It’s pretty neat traveling with him. He’s a man among the people.”
Jimmy Saldate, Chase’s father, commended Cormier for his commitment to the team.
“He’s here Monday through Friday, even the weekends, traveling,” Jimmy Saldate said. “He doesn’t have to do this. He does it because he loves wrestling. He’s got a wife and two kids, and his kids are young. A lot of people didn’t buy in. He’ll be there once a week. These kids get 100 percent attention. They get way more than any high school kid should even get.”
Cormier, who already had a youth wrestling program based out of San Jose, isn’t going about this alone. As he vowed when he got the job — one in which he donates his stipend to the program — he has surrounded himself with accomplished wrestlers to help him coach, including former college All-American Shawn Bunch.
As with Cormier, they’re all in.
“I love the sport of wrestling and I love to give back and help guys who have the same goal as me when I was in high school,” said Bunch, who has known Cormier for 20 years. “Help them achieve their goals, to be the best in the state or best in the world, help them get to that level. Some of the guys want to wrestle Division I, help them get there.”
Three days after Gilroy won the prestigious Five Counties Invitational in Southern California — a trophy Cormier proudly holds up in his office — the lights dim in the school’s wrestling room and Cormier starts the film study.
With his wrestlers gathered around him, he praises the good moves and underlines the flaws.
“Don’t let that kid take you down with one arm,” Cormier says. “I never let anyone take me down with one arm.”
Cormier is not about status quo. He is thankful for his predecessors, noting that Gonzalez came within a point of beating Clovis for a state title — the closest Gilroy has been to the mountaintop — and that Gonzalez and Varela built the foundation.
But Cormier believes the program’s best days are to come.
“When I came in here, for what they’ve already accomplished, with the coaching staff that I have and the experience that we have, we felt that we could try to take it to another level,” Cormier said. “As good as I believe this team is, I think that our best team is seventh graders, sixth graders.
“We have a tremendous middle school group of kids — sixth, seventh and eighth graders — that I believe in a few years they’ll be the best team that Gilroy has ever seen.”
Retirement from the UFC is presumably around the corner for Cormier.
One fight, and that’ll be it.
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”curated” curated_ids=”5180600,5177847″]”One more to go,” said Cormier, who defended his heavyweight crown with a win over Derrick Lewis in November. “Starting to get ready again. I am not exactly sure when the fight is going to be. But I’ve got to win a state title first. After I win a state title — or give ourselves the best chance to win a state title — then I can start to focus on something else. Right now the main focus is wrestling, and I am lucky to be a part of Gilroy.”
[dfm_iframe src=”https://apps.mercurynews.com/newsletters-signup/?campaign=bayareapreps” width=”100%” height=”220px” allowfullscreen=”yes” scrolling=”yes” /]