Unlike many high school athletes who will enjoy holiday goodies and not think twice about their playing weight, wrestlers are different. They keep an eye on the scale because if they want to compete in their desired weight class, they know they can’t exceed the top weight limit. Before a match, competitors are weighed, and those who fail to stay within their weight class can’t compete.
The Palisades High School wrestling team is off to a good start this season, and will compete in two tournaments over winter break: the Brute Amat Rumble (Dec. 17) and the Upland Black Watch Tournament (Dec. 27 and 28).
The team’s first scheduled home match is Jan. 19 against Diego Rivera.
The Dolphins opened the season by winning a dual match against Carter (Rialto) 36-33 on Nov. 26 and then placed 11th out of 26 teams at the Newbury Park Invitational, beating schools such as El Camino, Chaminade and Crespi.
The following weekend, at the Golden Legends Tournament, Palisades finished fourth out of 22 teams. During the weekend of Dec. 17, PaliHi took home the team championship at the Bishop Amat Tournament at La Puente.
Senior Kaila Osorio, who has been the sole female in the school’s wrestling program for all four years, took first in the heavy-weight class at Golden Legends. As the top seed, she received a first-round bye, then pinned her opponent in the second match and won the championship with a 7-1 win in the finals.
Girls only wrestle other females at the city and state level, but Osorio, being the only girl on the team, practices with the guys.
Also taking first at Golden Legends was junior Hamzah Alsaudi, who dominated his first two matches, winning with pins. His final match went into overtime and he won, 3-1.
He went to state for the first time last year. “My goal is to place at state and then become a state champ,” said Alsaudi, who went to State for the first time last year. He’s currently ranked in the top 20 in the 195-weight class in the state.
Second-year head coach Steve Cifonelli said, “I also brought a B-team to the Golden Legends tournament and five wrestlers medaled.” He was proud of those kids and the veterans in his program.
“Many [B-team members] were brand new, they didn’t have wrestling shoes, they didn’t know how to put on the head gear when they started,” Cifonelli said. “A couple of these kids weren’t wrestlers four months ago. But, this isn’t about a coach’s ego, but about the rest of the team and how they helped the new kids.”
Cifonelli has about 40 students out for a sport that started at PaliHi in 2011 with P.E. teacher Randy Aguirre as head coach. The school initially wasn’t much interested in the program, and Aguirre started it without mats, without practice space and with many kids who had never wrestled before. Paul Revere has a wrestling program that now feeds about five kids a year into the high school team.
Two years into the program, Aguirre was diagnosed with gliobastoma, a grade-4 brain tumor, and assist coach Aldo Juliano stepped in when Aguirre died in January 2015.
“It was awful, I didn’t plan on that,” Juliano said. “We fought it tooth and nail, and just when I thought he was coming around, it [the tumor] came back.”
Juliano now serves as head of wrestling operations and assists Cifonelli, who wrestled at Cortland High School in Cortland, New York, and received a full scholarship to Temple University in the sport.
After graduating with a degree in physical education and health, Cifonelli taught first at Glassboro, New Jersey and then at Burlington.
He has three daughters, one of whom attended the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, one who attended Cal State Long Beach and one who eventually went to F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York.
“I followed my daughters out here,” said Cifonelli, who spent three years teaching in Watts. He was laid off when his school’s newest teachers were cut in 2010, but ended up substituting and eventually connecting with Revere and its wrestling program—and then PaliHi, where he now also now works as a P.E. teacher.
He was asked about Osorio, the team’s lone female.
“She’s won the last two tournaments and has earned the team’s respect,” he said. “One of the easiest Division I scholarships is in girls wrestling and the quality of the sport is increasing.”
Osorio plans to attend a community college and then a four-year school before acquiring her master’s degree and becoming a social worker.
For most of the winter break, wrestlers will spend two-and-a-half hours working out each day. In January, 5:30 a.m. work-outs twice a week will also be available in addition to regular practices.
Four PaliHi wrestlers reached the state tournament last year Hamzah Alsaudi (195), Marcelo Maya (160), Kevin Rosen (152) who graduated and is attending the University of Pennsylvania and Jake Adler (145) who is not wrestling this year for personal reasons. Cifonelli thinks four or five individuals will probably qualify this year.
This is a program that is maturing. Initially, banners were hung in the wrestling room for those athletes who qualified for state, but “now there will only be banners for those who medal,” Cifonelli said.