By Nicholas Grube
Triplicate staff writer
For Roger "Bronc" McCovey, it happened as he stepped on the mat.
The lights dimmed and the crowd inside Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield disappeared into the darkness. The only thing left was a raised wrestling mat illuminated by spotlights.
"Once you're on that mat you can't see anything," McCovey said. "All you got is your wrestling."
McCovey was about to face then-undefeated Dominic Galas of Central Catholic High School in Modesto at the CIF State Wrestling Championships, and McCovey knew he had arrived.
He dispatched Galas in three rounds, beating him 2-1, to become the first wrestler in Humboldt-Del Norte Conference history to bring home a state title.
The championship caps off a perfect season in which McCovey went undefeated (41-0), claimed the number one heavyweight ranking in the state and did so without ever giving up points for a takedown.
"That was my main goal," McCovey said, "to not get taken down."
But even as Roger dominated the regular seasonpinning almost all of his opponentshis path to the state championship did not come as easily. In four of five matches at the tournament, McCovey had to wrestle all three periods.
"I wasn't used to that," he said. "Usually I never go past the first round."
Part of the reason McCovey had difficulty with his opponents is the size of the other grapplers, said Del Norte head wrestling coach Aaron Schaad. At 6 feet 3 inches, 240 pounds, McCovey was the smallest heavyweight, Schaad said, weighing at least 30 pounds less than his opponents.
"I think what slowed him down was the size and strength of the other kids," Schaad said. "The caliber of athlete that he was wrestling was far superior to that he was seeing through the year."
McCovey's final opponent, Dominic Galas, was no exception. He weighs nearly 40 pounds more than McCovey and is going to the University of California in Berkeley on a football scholarship to play on the offensive line.
But it was McCovey, not Galas, who was on the offensive during the match, Schaad said.
"It was tough to score on him. There was no doubt he was agile and extremely strong," Schaad said. "Even in that match, 2 to 1, Roger was pushing the entire tempo of the match."
Schaad said it appeared Galas' strategy was to wrestle defensively by eluding McCovey's numerous attempts for a takedown and trying to keep the point total close until the end of the match where he could try to get a quick score and win.
However, this tactic eventually worked against Galas.
In the second period a stalling call gave McCovey the point and the edge needed to win the state title.
"As a coach I was nervous enough for the both of us going into that finals match," said Del Norte's assistant wrestling coach Clinton Schaad. "You make a mistake and one of the big guys gets ahead of you."
Even though Galas wrestled defensively, Schaad said Galas was McCovey's only opponent in the tournament who could withstand his shots for a takedown. But even with the match as close as it was, Schaad said he was confident in McCovey's quickness and technique.
"You prepare them for this moment and hopefully they take advantage of it," Schaad said. "It's a huge, huge, huge accomplishment for Roger as well as for Del Norte wrestling."
Aside from McCovey winning the state championship, senior teammate Jake Young also won two matches, including one against an opponent who beat him twice in earlier matches in the year. Young's points contributed to Del Norte High's team score at state which was enough for 30th place out of the 274 teams represented.
"I wish Jake was a junior but he's not," Aaron Schaad said of his senior 215-pound grappler.
But even as Young's graduation will leave a void in Del Norte's wrestling program, Schaad can take solace in knowing McCovey will be back next year.
"His performance at state is definitely a confidence builder," Schaad said. "And we look forward to repeating next year."
There are other milestones McCovey will have the opportunity to accomplish as well, Schaad added.
"He's a state champion, but there's always things to improve on," he said.
McCovey will likely have a national ranking next year as a senior, and he's already talked to his coaches about doing something that only three other high school wrestlers in California have done.
When McCovey mentions this new goal he can't help but let a toothy grin stretch across his face.
"Next year, I want to pin everybody at state."