Morro Bay High wrestler Dolin Mininni stood in a long line in the sweaty and smelly staging area of Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, where the strongest and toughest wrestlers in California were waiting for their turn to walk onto one of the many mats and battle.
Even though he was surrounded by hundreds of other wrestlers, he felt abandoned.
Mininni marched to his mat alone, dressed down to his singlet and warmed up for his match with Daniel Valles of Covina’s Northview High in the consolation rounds of the 138-pound division of last month’s CIF Championships.
For Mininni, this was it.
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He reached this point after getting into wrestling when he was a little kid and enduring years early morning workouts. He won a CIF-Southern Section title. He went on to do well enough at the Masters to qualify for the state meet.
In his first match of the double-elimination tournament, he suffered a one-point loss to Racelis Cardenas of Buchanan-Clovis — an eventual semifinalist. Mininni, a senior, was dropped into the consolation bracket, meaning one more loss and his season, as well as his high school career, would be over.
But when he was set to face Valles, tournament officials denied Mininni entrance onto the mat. He didn’t have any coaches in his corner. He needed one. It was a CIF rule. They weren’t around. The two Morro Bay coaches with the proper credentials left the arena, thinking they had time to eat between rounds. They didn’t tell Mininni of their decision, according to the family. The tournament announcer called for the Morro Bay coaches four times over the arena’s loud speakers. Fifteen minutes later, still no coaches.
Mininni was confused and lost. He looked around the arena and noticed eyes focusing on him. Though there were nine other matches going on, the crowd figured something was up. Officials were meeting near Mininni’s mat. Mininni’s parents, his brother and his childhood coach, Gary McBride, were trying to locate the Morro Bay coaches.
“What I saw was not only a look on my son’s face of helplessness, but I also felt helpless myself,” said Tony Mininni, Dolin’s dad. This comes from someone who still owns a boxer’s physique after years in the sport.
At this point, Mininni thought his high school career would end on a forfeit.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “I’d worked so hard. This was my last year, my last shot to do it. It was just not my time to go.”
But then, Atascadero coach Chris Ferree offered to help. He and his co-coach Jeff Spiller were supervising their 132-pounder, Abe Halterman, on a mat next to Mininni’s.
“If it had been a mat on the other side of the arena, we may not have known or reacted to Dolin’s situation,” Ferree pointed out.
Mininni had prepared for an unwanted ending.
“My coaches still didn’t come, so I went back and put my warmups back on,” he said. “I was bouncing around and the refs said, ‘That was the fourth and final call.’ I thought I was done right there and the Atascadero coach came over and said he’d coach me.”
The referees allowed the match to take place, with Ferree in Mininni’s corner.
“It was beautiful,” Tony Mininni said. “I love the man and I’ll thank him forever.”
The Morro Bay coaches showed up about 10 minutes after the match ended. They underestimated how long it’d take to grab food outside of the arena. Head coach Joel Martinez later apologized to Morro Bay athletic director John Andree and the Mininnis.
“I didn’t want my season to end like this,” said Martinez, who coached the state tournament with his brother, an assistant. “I didn’t want Dolin’s season to end this way. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. It was my fault.”
Ferree said he was glad he could help, adding, “The Morro Bay coaches or any other coach in the area would do the same thing.”
“Sports are amazing and terrible at the same time,” Ferree continued. “They require so much of you, but so much is out of your hands.”
Though Mininni lost 8-3 against his final opponent, it was not a forfeit — the closest thing to giving up without a fight. A month later, the moment still lingers on for Mininni, who spends some of his time trying to understand what he went through. He also coaches little kids, some as young as 5 years old, for the Meathead Wrestling Club, hoping to share what he’s learned about the sport throughout his years.
“I was pretty upset,” he said. “After my match, I left and me and my brother were just talking. I changed in the car. I never saw (the Morro Bay coaches) after that. I went home with my parents. On the drive home, I got a text message from him: ‘I’m sorry. We need to talk.’”