Benton City — Before Cruz Del Angel tries to win his state record 113th consecutive wrestling match this morning, he will go to the side of the mat, say a quick prayer, point to the heavens and then get down to business.
The Kiona-Benton City High senior 189-pounder does the ritual before every match, and it will be no different at the state tournament this weekend.
Del Angel's older brother, Ramon, died in 2009 in a cliff diving accident near Vantage. His mother, Pamela, died in 2011 of breast cancer.
"I wrestle for her and my brother," Del Angel said. "I pray to God every time I go out to give me strength to go out there and wrestle and perform my best for my mom and my brother."
Del Angel has won 112 consecutive matches, which is believed to be the most in state history, including two state titles, and is after a third beginning today at Mat Classic XXVI in the Tacoma Dome.
Pamela got to see her youngest son compete at state as a freshman, where he suffered his last loss -- a 7-3 decision to Castle Rock's Levi Godinho.
She succumbed to the cancer before she got to see him wrestle for his high school team again, so he dedicated his perfect sophomore season to her.
"I wanted to win and make her proud," Del Angel said. "She went up my freshman year (to state) and I felt like I disappointed her. She was really proud of me still for going there, though. (I think) she'd be really proud of me (now)."
He also wrestles every match in pink socks, and plans to wear pink laces in his wrestling shoes this weekend as well.
Del Angel began wrestling at the age of 7, following in the footsteps of Ramon and older brother Joseph.
His father, Raymond, his older sister, Ashley Saldana and her husband, Maurisil, go to all of his matches. His twin sister, Cruzita, is a wrestling cheerleader.
"I think after my mom passed away, it was like that much more to prove himself that he could take first," Saldana said. "It made us very proud of him. I think it is amazing that he has had the opportunity to wrestle and win so many matches."
If Del Angel captures a third state title, he would be the fourth Kiona-Benton wrestler to do so. Garrett Knutson won three in 1995-97, Ale DeLaPena won three in 1998-2000, and Sheridan McDonald became the first girl to win four in 2008-2011.
"There have been some very dominant wrestlers, but he will come out with the best record of anyone at Ki-Be," said boys coach Ben Hill. "This year has been the kind that every person would want. Every coach would want (him) in their room, because he wants to leave stuff behind. He wants people to say, 'You are a damn good wrestler and a good person too.' "
Del Angel wrestled at 152 pounds as a freshman, 170 as a sophomore and 182 the past two years.
He has a tremendous work ethic and drive to keep himself at the top of his classification, and is rarely challenged.
He has trailed in matches just a few times, and only had close calls twice this season. Once at the Bob Mars Invitational, he fell behind 5-0 before rallying to win 8-7. At the Best of the West Classic in Pasco, he again fell behind 5-0, but pinned his opponent in the second round.
"He is driven to be good," Hill said. "He'll fight not to lose. You have a lot of kids say, 'I can't get my move. I can't do this.' But he'll throw every move in the book at ya and go back to the beginning and try it all again, just a little different."
Del Angel's success hasn't come only against other small schools in the 1A classification. His team goes to Bob Mars and Best of the West because those tournaments match up all school sizes against each other. He defeated the Class 3A champ by pin in 38 seconds as a sophomore, and beat Woodinville's Ryan Christensen in a freestyle event. Christensen, considered one of the best in the state, is after his second Class 4A state title this weekend.
"It is just hard work. Determination. Set your mind for it and go for it," he said. "You have to have a really strong mentality to wrestle. You have to set that mentality so much higher than everyone else, and to be unbeatable you have to prove it."
Del Angel has proved it over and over. 112 times in a row, in fact.
And he hopes to add four more wins to that streak before this weekend is over.
And if he does, he is sure to have two big fans looking down at him.
"I think her first words would be, 'Good job, mijo', which means 'good job son,'" Saldana said her mom would say to Cruz. "She would be extremely proud of him, and I know she would start crying because she would be so happy."
Craig Craker: 582-1509; firstname.lastname@example.org