Months before the winter high school season even starts, there were several Desert Edge wrestlers hitting the mats to hone techniques and get as many repetitions in as possible.
Coach Rafael Perez, who took over the program in June, looked on as his new squad listened to the Rocky soundtrack and continued to improve in voluntary practices, motivated by their new head man.
Perez, a quality high school wrestler, forewent college to begin his life in the workforce, and his coaching career began in California just by teaching his kids basic techniques.
“I started out my kids over 20 years ago in wrestling because their mom and I thought it would just be something good for them to get into,” he said. “People started asking me to help them train when they saw how my kids were doing.
“Eventually, they’d come to my house and train from all over California, and my own kids had a ton of success. It was something I thought I could do at any level. High school level is great because the kids need to learn the tools to succeed in life.”
The family moved to Arizona, and Perez joined the staff at wrestling power Sunrise Mountain High to ease into to coaching in a new state.
“Well, I eased in for about seven years,” he said, chuckling. “My kids all wanted to go to the same school. When they all finished, I was going to retire, but this surfaced. I got it, and I was motivated to run a whole program the way I wanted to.”
Perez described himself as “tough,” and said several members of the roster were shocked at just how hard initial practices were. Weeks later, they were pleasantly surprised at how much they had grown.
David Shuler, one of few members of past staff still with the team, said he saw a drastic change in both workout intensity and offseason attendance in a short time once Perez arrived.
“The program is just night-and-day level different from what it’s been in the past, not to put anyone from before down. From the first day he stepped in here, you could tell the difference in the atmosphere,” he said.
“You can see how much improvement there’s been, and that’s a lot.”
Sophomore Kris Ciccarelli, who recently took first place in a local offseason tournament, agreed. He has seen vast improvement from himself, but teammates as well.
“We were a little weak to start. We’ve all gotten a lot stronger and more intense, and learned a lot of new techniques that we weren’t looking at before in a short time.” he said.
“The biggest lesson is that he taught us how to be ‘mean’ and get the opponents uncomfortable so that we can dominate them.”
As offseason training progresses, Perez said the roster will continue to accumulate talent, especially when multisport athletes of the Scorpion football team join after that season ends.
The success of the wrestling team is important for Perez in his first year with the new program. He hopes his greatest impact comes in teaching life lessons for his young kids.
“I want to bring a program where the kids can excel and learn to wrestle, but honestly I want to teach them to wrestle the challenges they’re going to face in life,” he said.
“I believe it’s one of the sports that gives kids a ton they can take with them for years after finishing high school.”