Before a big match, you can always spot University High heavyweight wrestler Neftali Lopez.
He’s the one on the sideline, sound asleep.
“That’s my thing, I like to take a nap for, maybe 20 minutes,” the senior said. “That way I wake up refreshed and relaxed and ready to go.”
He’ll follow that routine this weekend in Tacoma, where he will go for a second straight medal-winning performance. A sixth-place finisher at 190 pounds a year ago, Lopez has a much bigger challenge facing him this time when he walks into the Tacoma Dome.
“I’ve felt like I have a had a lot more things to work on this year,” he explained. “I went up two weight classes this year. Wrestling heavyweight I have to wrestle a lot smarter. It’s really easy to make a mistake and have one of those big guys get on top of you.”
Lopez actually tips the scale at 218 pounds and started the season wrestling at his natural weight class, 220 pounds. But the Titans needed someone to move up to the 285-pound class.
“It was either me or Caleb Thomas,” Lopez said. “My coaches and I decided that we would have me go heavyweight because I wrestle a lot smarter than he does – he likes to throw guys and that can get you in trouble if you make a mistake. I try to stay in position. When you give up that much weight, you have to stay in position.”
As a 190-pounder last year, and as a 220-pounder at the start of the season, Lopez has discovered his own innate ability to adapt to new conditions and new challenges. He’s embraced the idea of wrestling in a division in which he can be giving up enough weight to make a full-grown husky (the Siberian version, not the UW type).
“Against a heavyweight, you know they’re going to be strong in the first period and try to use their strength against you,” he said. “You have to be prepared for that. In my mind, the second and third periods are mine. Especially the third period. I will out-condition them all, and I will own the third period.
“In the third period I will be on top of them. Or I will take shots and get a single leg on them and take them to the mat. When they try to tripod up, I will get them in a cradle and take them to their back. I have a really strong grip, and I have really strong forearms. When I get them in a cradle, even the big guys, I can get the pin.”
There is a history of success from U-Hi heavyweights at state – many of them named Orndorff. Tate Orndorff was a two-time state champion heavyweight. His older brother, Tegan, placed seventh at state in 2011, a year after Jake Laden placed third and Dalton Crosby fourth.
What links that chain of success is U-Hi assistant coach Dave Orndorff, an All-American heavyweight at Oregon State and father to Tate and Tegan. For almost two decades he’s worked with successful upper-weight division Titans.
“He’s been an incredible help to me,” Lopez said. “We realized that my speed would be a big asset for me, and we’ve been working on how to use that. And he’s really taught me well how to deal with having a big guy on top of me and what I need to do to get out.”
Lopez has a good feel for who he wrestles in his first state match, Austin Rewoldt of Enumclaw, in the first match of the bracket.
“I lost to him at Dream Duals,” he said. “I was just coming back from an injury, and I didn’t really have a game plan for any of my matches. This time I will have a completely different game plan for that match.”
Lopez is enjoying the prep work for what will likely be his final weekend as a competitive wrestler.
“I’ve put so much into these last four years, but it feels pretty good to be coming down to the end of it all,” he said. “I feel good about what I’ve accomplished. I’ve loved being a wrestler, and I can see myself joining a club and keeping with it, but I don’t see myself wrestling in college.”
He does see himself doing well again at state.
And his opponents will likely be somewhat unnerved by his pre-match ritual.
“It’s all a mind game,” he laughs. “For me, taking a nap keeps me fresh for the next match. But I can see where it would unnerve an opponent. I like that.”