Pin it to win it

Senior wrestlers shift culture, make state tournament

Sage+Benca+%28left%29+and+Selena+Sifuentes+Shaffer+celebrate+after+the+Vista+Ridge+Invitational+tournament.+Benca+and+Sifuentes+Shaffer%2C+team+captains+and+best+friends%2C+have+made+a+significant+impact+on+the+Ranger+wrestling+program.

Selena Sifuentes Shaffer

Sage Benca (left) and Selena Sifuentes Shaffer celebrate after the Vista Ridge Invitational tournament. Benca and Sifuentes Shaffer, team captains and best friends, have made a significant impact on the Ranger wrestling program.

By Jackson Posey, Smithson Valley High School

After a Senior Night win over a longtime opponent, Selena Sifuentes Shaffer looked triumphant. Nothing about the match seemed out of the ordinary, save for a short scuffle afterwards. But as she beelined towards Sage Benca, her best friend and fellow team captain, Sifuentes Shaffer couldn’t contain her laughter.

“She won it by a point, came off, gave me a hug (and) I was crying,” Benca said. “And then she whispered in my ear, ‘I bit her.’ And then me and her both were brought to the floor laughing, because she bit her! During the match!”

Onlookers may have missed Sifuentes Shaffer’s vampiric assault, but they certainly noticed her boisterous laughter. She and Benca have worked hard to reshape Smithson Valley’s wrestling culture into one of joy and togetherness, and the results are palpable.

“It’s kind of funny, it’s like a joke among the team (that) if we ever have a boys-only match or anything and Sage and Selena are not competing … the kids are like, ‘well, what are we gonna do now (that) Sage and Selena aren’t here?’” Head

 wrestling coach Tim Clarkson said. “So that’s their impact. They are not girl wrestlers, they are Smithson Valley wrestlers. And our two girl captains are the leaders of our program, unquestioned. All of the boys, the varsity football players, they fall in line and do what they say. … It’s pretty remarkable.”

The phrase “fall in line” may evoke thoughts of a militaristic reign, where two wrestlers inflict wrath upon their peers, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Sage and Selena – two names so often spoken in tandem – are hoping to build a foundation of love within the wrestling program.

“We kind of wanna do everything we can to instill morals and values into the younger kids because we’re not gonna be here next year,” Sifuentes Shaffer said. “Me and Sage, we just kind of want to throw them into the deep end, and they’re gonna have to deal with us being all over them. Like, we’re forcing them to be friends.

“We wanna show them that they’re loved, so they can stay in the sport. And that wrestling is fun.”

That desire didn’t materialize out of thin air. As freshmen, both girls walked into a cold, unwelcoming wrestling room, where they were treated differently because of their inexperience. And they don’t want that to happen to anyone else.

“Freshman year … I had to wrestle (against) a junior that already had the varsity spot in that weight class,” Benca said. “The first two times (we wrestled), she beat me. And then we wrestled again … halfway through the season, and I beat her. And then, from that point on, none of the team would talk to me.”

By her junior year, the ostracization had passed, and Benca was voted team captain. But she never forgot what it was like to be on the outside looking in.

“I would go into the wrestling room and rarely have anyone to talk to,” Benca said. “(I) wouldn’t have too much fun, but I’d get my work done. So it helped me (to get to) where I’m at right now, cuz I was solely focused on wrestling. I wasn’t even having fun in the room at that point. But … that’s where my love for it started. And then the love for the people came afterwards.”

Enter Sifuentes Shaffer, the senior class president and someone who Benca describes as “a happy-go-lucky person, always smiling, ray of sunshine”. As an underclassman, she faced a different kind of isolation than Benca, battling various injuries which ended her first two seasons. But despite that, she found community in an unlikely place: the football team.

“In fourth grade, I wanted to do football and so did she,” Selena’s twin brother Sam said. “(But) it was still a changing time for girls to be in most guys’ sports at the time.”

She did play football, and was pretty darn good at it. Once, at a middle football practice, she stepped into a ring of teammates to run an Oklahoma drill, which often culminates in a big collision between two players. It’s a Coliseum-like atmosphere: one competitor leaves victorious, and the other is left in the dirt. (Or, in this case, the turf.)

After a thunderous clash, it was Selena – not her male opponent – left standing.

“I remember … waiting in line, and she goes up and she just absolutely clocks a kid,” Sam said. “I mean, she puts him on his butt. (And) it was relatively new to her being on the team as well, so everyone’s kind of doing the, ‘Ohhh!’ … That was pretty cool.”

Selena loved football, and made headlines for her exploits as a junior varsity fullback. But there was a problem. She wanted to compete at the Division I level, and wasn’t on track to do so on the gridiron. She was, however, a Region IV wrestling champion. So eventually, begrudgingly, she set her first love aside to focus on the mat.

“I was the biggest crybaby (about quitting football),” Selena said. “It hurt so bad. … It felt like going through a breakup, honestly. Cuz you dedicate so much work and effort (that) it’s like a relationship to the sport. To have to step away, it hurt a lot.”

That step back from football coincided with two steps forward in wrestling, as her increased emphasis on the sport served as rocket fuel for her career.

“When she did not medal at state, she dedicated herself to the sport,” Clarkson said. “She went to a two week camp in Missouri, an intensive camp. She traveled and went with teams and competed in girls-only tournaments (around) the country. And so she’s really dedicated herself, and she’s really come on.”

Not only did Selena increase her summer workload, but she also began competing with Sage at local club NB Elite in the fall. For the first time in her high school career, she was all-in on a single sport, and it showed.

“When I did football, it was August through November,” Selena said. “But since I wasn’t in football, I had all that extra time to prepare for wrestling. So everything was, ‘wrestling, wrestling, wrestling.’”

As time went on, wrestling began to consume more and more of Selena’s waking hours. That afforded her ample opportunity to grow her relationship with her co-captain, Benca, who Clarkson described as being like Selena’s second twin.

“They’re always together,” Clarkson said. “Selena is a twin, and so she has a special relationship with her twin brother. And so Sage and Selena have almost developed that same type of relationship. You can see real stress and anguish if the other person is not performing the way that they want. They get visibly upset for the other person … it’s pretty exceptional.”

Aside from her honorary sister, Sage has an older brother, Ryan, who’s currently a wrestler at Division I Presbyterian College. Their relationship has also played a big role in Sage’s personal growth.

“Man, she is one of the most kind-hearted people I know,” Ryan said of his sister. “Sage is very welcoming and can easily sympathize with people. She loves making people smile. She keeps a positive attitude while trying to create positivity for others. She’s sweet and caring towards everyone.”

Their connection is strong enough that others have taken notice, and Ryan’s dedication to his sister (and the program as a whole) has impacted the entire team.

“The same physical and mental intangibles that (make Sage) good, (Ryan possesses) those also,” Clarkson said. “They have a very close relationship. When Ryan was here for the Christmas holidays, Ryan came to all the matches. He sat on the bench with the kids. He came to practice every day. 

“They are truly … cornerstones of our young program, and that’s the kind of stuff that you want. You want your kids to be successful. You want your kids to go on, and then you want your kids to come back and impart that and share that with the rest of the kids so they see that anything is possible.”

With Ryan gone, Sage and Selena have stepped into even more influential roles, leading their teammates by example. Off the mat, they exhibit the kind of behaviors they want to see in their peers. On the mat, they dominate.

Both wrestlers tore through the regular season, winning match after match, including the Region IV championship in their respective weight classes. With a combined record of 97-2, they punched their tickets to the state tournament in Cypress.

Sage, the top-ranked wrestler in Texas, was all set to make a rare fourth trip to the Berry Center. But this year, she entered the sports complex with a different mindset. In the past, she viewed her success as accidental – a combination of favorable matchups and fortunate geography. As an upperclassman, though, she finally found her confidence.

“Until last year, I blamed everything on luck,” Sage said. “I did not believe I was that good until last year.”

Winning region as a freshman? Luck. Winning region as a sophomore? A fluke. But by her junior year, she finally realized that maybe – just maybe – there was some skill involved.

The turning point came while Sage (and the rest of the world) were shut up by the COVID-19 pandemic. She used some of her newfound free time to study matches from prior seasons, and as she watched that film, an epiphanic lightbulb went off.

“During COVID I would go back and I’d watch my first year matches and … my most recent matches, and I’d compare them,” Sage said. “And like, that’s not the same person anymore. And so then, after like last season, I looked from freshman year, all the way to my last season, I was just like, ‘oh wow. Yeah. I’m definitely something. Maybe just a little bit.’”

That may sound prideful, but Sage – who entered the state tournament with a cool 51-0 record under her belt – can back it up. Still, behind her veneer of confidence is a real person, trying to manage the stress just like everyone else.

“I’m too humble with myself sometimes,” Sage said before the tournament. “Like, I can jokingly be like, ‘oh yeah, state champ? State champ.’ But whenever it comes to seriously talking about it, … I’m just gonna go out there and try my best. I don’t know if I’ll actually get state champ. My goal is to (win), but if I don’t, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t come back and get it a ‘next time.’ So I just gotta deal with it this time.

“That’s how I talk, (but) it’s too humble for me apparently. … In the back of my head, I have confidence. It’s just, in the moment, I know I’m going to be so scared.”

As nervous as she was, her emotions were nuanced. For many, facing such high stakes would be completely nerve-wracking. But Sage, who’d competed at the state tournament thrice before, holds a unique perspective.

“There’s no other feeling than walking into that big arena,” Sage said before the tournament. “Just like the feeling in general … It’s an overwhelming thing that you have to get over. You have to get used to it. And so, four years going into that arena, I’m pretty used to it by now, but I am so scared for my teammates who aren’t.”

That feeling was heightened this year by the fact that Sage wasn’t just a competitor – she was the favorite. And walking into the Berry Center as the top-ranked wrestler in the state came with even more stressors. But one by one, she picked off her opponents.

In the first round, it took just 48 seconds to pin her opponent; in the second, 1:44; in the third, 3:10. Suddenly, Prosper’s Maegan Flaherty was the only thing standing between Sage and a state title.

“Right before the match, I’m like, okay, I’ve beaten her before. I can handle this,” Sage said. “This is my goal. She’s in my way. I (have) to beat her.”

It wasn’t their first title bout – back in January, Sage defeated Flaherty to win the Cy-Fair Invitational – but it would be their last.

The match was tense. For over three minutes, neither wrestler could gain a clear advantage. But after a few hectic moments that felt like an eternity – a pin attempt, an escape and a successful counter-pin by Sage – it was over. And the 55-0 state champion was on top of the world.

“Once I (flipped) her to her back, the crowd went wild,” Sage said. “And I remember pinning her, and … that huge sensation of winning the state championship just washed over me.”

Between Sage’s title and Selena’s fourth-place finish, the Rangers finished fifth in a field of 72 teams. It was a fitting, triumphant ending to their senior season – but endings are always bittersweet.

“Honestly, I’m ready for it to end,” Sage said before the tournament. “Ever since I started wrestling, I’ve never taken a break. … (But) I am never gonna get to see (Selena) and it’s gonna be so sad.”

“Honestly, it doesn’t make me feel too sad, because we have a bond that (will) last,” Selena said. “We are each other’s practice partners; that’s something that can’t get (taken) away.”

Perhaps someday, Sage Benca and Selena Sifuentes Shaffer will find themselves on the same team once again. Maybe, as Sage joked, they could “hop in (a) private jet real quick” to visit one another.

But one thing is  certain: even though their season is over, their story is far from finished.

This story was originally published on Valley Ventana on April 29, 2022.