STOCKTON — Seconds after the match ended, Merced High junior Mark Taijeron spiked his headgear onto the mat in triumph and received a huge bear hug from assistant coach Ken Hamel.
The moment was sweet and so was the accomplishment. Taijeron captured the 132-pound title of the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Wrestling Championship, clinching it with a taut 6-5 win over Kimball junior Trent Nicholson Saturday afternoon at Stockton Arena.
"I was just so happy," Taijeron said, not long after he posed for photographs at the top step of the medal podium. "I was just overcome with happiness."
And why not? Taijeron (39-8) climaxed a memorable February with a 5-0 campaign through his bracket.
He became the first Merced wrestler to win the Masters title since Chris Urquizo in 2009. The omen is favorable for Taijeron. Urquizo went on to claim the state title a week later.
Taijeron will receive his chance this Friday and Saturday at the CIF State Championship at Bakersfield's Rabobank Arena. So will Atwater senior Kyle Thorpe (fourth at 160) and Merced junior Isaiah Alva (fifth at 138). The top seven in each of the 14 weight classes qualified.
The title by Taijeron was hardearned. Nicholson placed fifth at the 2012 Masters in the 126-pound class and eventually went 3-2 at State. He brought experience to the mat with him, and Taijeron -- who had never gone head-to-head against Nicholson before Saturday -- was challenged from the opening seconds.
But the Merced star gained the lead during the second period and stubbornly held on until the end. Earlier Saturday, he reached the final by outlasting Jimmy Felix of Los Banos 7-5.
"I was more nervous during the final than the semifinal," Taijeron said. "I like to score points, but in a situation like that (the title match), I'll ride."
So he did.
"He's doing all the things that he needs to do to win the match," Merced coach Clayton Schneider said. "He's been offensive on his feet, gets off the bottom and rides tough."
Taijeron, through his Central California Conference and Section divisional titles, built the kind of momentum that sustains through high-pressure tournaments like Masters.
"It was growing through most of the year, but after I won league my confidence really went up," he said.
Meanwhile, Thorpe and Alva advanced the hard way. Both lost their respective first-round matches, which meant they slogged long and hard through the consolation bracket.
Thorpe overcame a painful loss to Tanner Reeves of Oakdale, who pinned the Falcons' star in the final second. He responded with six straight wins, featuring low-scoring 1-point decisions over Alike Espiritu-Foster of Lincoln of Stockton and Patrick Neu of Del Oro. Thorpe was beaten for third by Justin Brown of Calaveras 4-0.
"We were worried about his psyche. He could have packed his bags and gone 0-2," said Atwater coach Nelson Medeiros regarding Thorpe's first-round loss. "but this is what he worked for. He realized that. He's battle-tested now."
Alva also opened with heartbreak -- a 12-9 setback in overtime to Brandon Matu of Antelope. He then strung together five wins, including a 5-3 overtime thriller over Jason Robbins of Escalon and a second-round pin of Woodland's Eric Richards.
A loss to eventual third-place finisher Joey Abbate of Central Catholic led to a closing 9-7 decision over Giovanni Murillo of Bret Harte for fifth.
"A lot of kids aren't mentally tough enough to run five in a row and place after a loss like that," Schneider said.
Taijeron, Thorpe and Alva all will make their first trip to Bakersfield. For Taijeron, the season-ending goal is clear.
"Top eight," he said. "A medal."