Anthony Mantanona’s final wrestling match representing Palm Desert High School went a little longer than planned.
The California record holder with 151 career pins in 193 victories hadn’t allowed an opponent to hang around with the future state champion at 170 pounds for more than 74 seconds all weekend – four pins in four trips to the mat.
Maybe Mantanona had learned from last year’s flashy state finals appearance where he landed several highlight reel-worthy takedowns of Jeremy Thomas, but eventually gassed himself and lost late. Maybe the Palm Desert senior’s opponent, Oakdale senior Abel Garcia, was a little too stout and compact for the longer, leaner Mantanona to roll over onto his back in Rabobank Arena at the CIF State Wrestling Championships.
Or, just maybe, Mantanona wanted to savor as many moments as a Palm Desert Aztec on the state finals mat as he possibly could.
It’s plenty flashier to pin an opponent in the biggest moment, but as Mantanona experienced Saturday night in the waning seconds of his 5-2 defeat of Garcia, it’s just as fun to parade around the mat, hands raised, embracing the roar of the crowd, grin from cheek-to-cheek, when the match isn’t even officially over, letting the reality of becoming an undefeated state champion sink in.
Entering Saturday’s championship bout with Garcia, Palm Desert coach Tom Lee said Mantanona had let his guard down a little a year ago in the final period against Jeremy Thomas. Despite what most expected to be a fairly simple match, Lee didn’t expect his star to let up for an instant. Saturday night, after a flawless 49-0 season, he earned it.
“Those last five seconds, I was looking at the clock tick 5-4-3-2-1 (and) think how this is the end of my season. Ending this way is all I’ve ever wanted in my high school career, and when it came, it was just an explosion of excitement,” Mantanona said. “I’ve had dreams about this moment right there, and it’s exactly how I thought it would be when all your hard work pays off.”
Mantanona may have dreamed about Saturday’s success and eventual celebration, but for 364 days, he’s had to live with a dreaded defeat that’s really the only mark against him in his illustrious career in high school. Ahead of Thomas, the Calvary Chapel senior who he’d defeated the week prior, by four points midway through the third period of last year’s state finals, Mantanona gave up one of the swift, rough takedowns and quick pins he’s become known for and let his chance at holding two state crowns slip through his fingers.
Yet, he claims, Saturday’s result and the dominant season that led up to it couldn’t have come without that loss.
“That loss might be one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “I got back in the room that next week and won a national title the next weekend. I was angry. I was fired up. I was marking the days until I’d be back here next.”
A year ago, Mantanona came to Bakersfield high off the defeat of previous state No. 1 Thomas in the Masters meet finals, and he admits the bright lights and the jam-packed Rabobank Arena got the best of him.
Rather than the victory tour that could have been, this weekend was a business trip for Mantanona. He mixed pins that took just long enough to break a sweat amidst watching his younger brother Troy work his way to a seventh-place finish at 145 pounds before turning on some reggae music to relax and do it all over again.
“My goal coming here wasn’t just to win, but to dominate and knock everyone off and bring the message to California that I’m the baddest guy at this weight,” he said.
In doing so, Mantanona has definitively become the most renowned wrestler in Coachella Valley history, with four Desert Valley League titles, four CIF SS divisional crowns, two CIF SS Masters meet championships and three medals at the state meet.
But the future Oklahoma Sooner doesn’t want his legacy and impact to end with him walking across the stage this summer at Palm Desert High School’s graduation.
“I don’t want to be the best one,” he said. “I want to be known as the guy who started the revolution of creating one of the best wrestling teams in the state.
“I’ve got guys that are younger than me like my brother and other teammates who I know can come in here and dominate.”
In the younger Mantanona brother, Anthony sees tons of potential that even excited him more than many of his own matches this weekend.
Troy said he’s watched his older brother’s opponents warming up in the staging room, the epitome of nervousness written all over their faces. It’s the kind of reputation he wants to own himself in his next two years.
“You can ask anyone in this arena. He’s the most dangerous guy in here. You see guys warming up for him like they’ve already accepted what’s going to happen,” he said. “You can’t stop him when he’s on a mission.”
Now, with Troy falling three places short of where Anthony finished at the same age in the same weight class at state, he’s got a road map laid out for him. The younger brother is primed to live up to his brother’s expectations, but no matter what Troy achieves, he said it will always go back to what his brother achieved Saturday night and overcame the last 364 days.
In two years, we’ll see if the state champion’s brother is the lone opponent who can go toe-to-toe with the elder Mantanona’s grit and accomplishments.
“He makes me better. We’re always in competition, and I’m getting to see what he’s doing here,” Troy said. “There’s no reason I can’t be doing the same stuff.
“I like to compete with him and set goals for myself based off him.”