‘Warrior Princess’ Leah Gaitan earns first YHS state wrestling championship

From left: Leah Gaitan, Abel Gaitan, Korey Mendoza, YHS wrestling coach David Espinosa.

Yucaipa High School freshman Leah Gaitan became the first wrestler in school history to earn a California championship after winning the CIF-State wrestling 106-pound title last month in Bakersfield. Gaitan won by a rare 1-0 disqualification when Walnut's Justine Barredo was penalized twice for stalling. Some outlets had Barredo ranked the No. 1, 106-pound contender in California. Teammate Korey Mendoza was the only other wrestler from the Citrus Belt League to advance to the state tournament. Mendoza placed eighth at 126-pounds.

Yucaipa High School wrestling coach David Espinosa detailed how difficult it was for Gaitan and Mendoza to reach the state tourney. “Leah was CBL champion, CIF-champ, then masters champ before earning state.” Espinosa recalled that Barredo, a two-time state finalist, gave Gaitan her only loss of the season, but Gaitan has since defeated Barredo twice. “It was not like Barredo was not trying to win. It was just that Leah put her in a position that she was not familiar with. Leah controlled the pressure and seems to wrestle with four arms. She is our ‘warrior princess.’”

Espinosa said Gaitan is nowhere near her potential and does not see her slowing down. “She is at the tip of the iceberg. She’s humble, hungry, and is physical, technical and tactical, a good student and a coach’s dream.” Espinosa says Gaitan is among those who are building the future of female wrestling and in the process making it more accessible to earn college scholarships.

“I will stay motivated because I know that it can be taken away from me at any time,” said Gaitan, whose championship gained wider exposure in Northern California. “I’m learning a little about handling the notoriety, but I do feel the pressure.” The ninth-grader finished the season with a 27-1 record.

Gaitan and Mendoza have no problem making weight, saying sugar and fried food are out. Small portions of fruit, vegetables, and yogurt are in. What does Gaitan recommend to younger girls? “Have fun. It’s not all about winning.”

The Gaitan family had the possibility of bringing home two state titles; however Leah’s brother, Abel was disqualified in the CIF-finals for using an illegal hold. At the time, Abel was ranked among the top 113-pounders in the state. Since both are freshmen (and not twins), they will have three more chances to join on the state championship podium. Leah said the two practice at home. “She beats boys in the gym every day. It’s no big deal for her,” added Espinosa.

Espinosa said Mendoza put together the tournament of his life in Bakersfield and proved himself further than he had been given credit. “Korey left behind every ounce of doubt and didn’t think about it. He just did it.” Mendoza also has fought 25 amateur mixed martial arts bouts. Espinosa credited Gaitan and Mendoza for bringing exposure to YHS’s wrestling program. He explained: “We’ll take one week off. Talk about weight management and then get back to it. Wrestling is a lifestyle. Now, everyone wants a piece of the glory.”

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