Cesar Balmaceda’s name was destined to end up in the newspaper.
The Atlantic City High School senior considers himself blessed that his name has been showing up in headlines in the sports section, however, and not as a footnote in the police blotter.
Wrestling can take credit for that. It changed his life.
“I was going to drop out (of high school) my freshman year,” said Balmaceda, who added that he had some run-ins with the police prior to taking up the sport. “Wrestling pulled me back, made me do the right thing.”
Now, the 17-year-old city resident has a chance to make history: He will try to become the first Atlantic City wrestler since the 1970s to qualify for the state individual tournament next weekend at Boardwalk Hall.
Rough start to life
Balmaceda’s childhood won’t be found in any storybook, but he refuses to use that as an excuse.
His mother died of breast cancer when he was 3 months old. His father, also named Cesar Balmaceda, fell into a deep depression following his wife’s death and developed a heroin addiction.
Cesar bounced between living with his father and other family members until Balmaceda Sr. was deported to Nicaragua when Cesar was about 6.
“That just makes me want to be a champion,” Balmaceda said of his background. “It makes me want to work hard and do a whole lot better in life.”
Balmaceda spent the majority of his childhood living with his aunt, 26-year-old Tamara Hiraki, and his grandmother. Hiraki said she was extremely worried about Balmaceda entering high school.
“He was very rebellious,” Hiraki said. “He didn’t listen. He was basically hanging out with people he wasn’t supposed to hang out with, bad crowds. Cesar was going to end up in juvie (juvenile detention) or catching serious charges.”
School was the last of Balmaceda’s concerns his freshman year. He became a regular in the principal’s office. He said he skipped school more than he went. When he did go, he would often leave early. He failed all of his classes.
“I didn’t have much guidance,” Balmaceda said. “It was a low point, something I regret and wish I could have done over, but I’m here now, and I’m glad for it.”
Turned to wrestling
Balmaceda needed wrestling more than wrestling needed him.
“I’m really happy he found wrestling,” said Hiraki, who believes Balmaceda is a natural at the sport. “He was always putting my sisters in headlocks and things like that. He always had it in him but never actually went to a wrestling practice.”
That changed just before his sophomore year.
Balmaceda had friends on the wrestling team. His friends had a feeling that Balmaceda would take to the sport quickly and encouraged him to try out.
He had impressive success from the start, compiling 12 wins and 8 losses as a sophomore.
“It was something I really liked doing — the practices and getting a good sweat in and being around my friends,” Balmaceda said. “It was the discipline, but it was just fun.”
Balmaceda said he hasn’t failed a class since he started wrestling. He gets As, Bs and Cs. Once on the brink of dropping out, he’s now looking to wrestle in college.
“When his freshman year came, I thought he was going to drop out and that was it,” Hiraki said. “I never thought that he’d want to go to college.
“His transformation is unexplainable. I never thought he would be going to college or even graduating high school, so we’re all very proud.”
Now on top
Nobody held his head higher while standing on top of the District 32 awards podium than Balmaceda last Saturday.
Balmaceda went 22-7 last season as a junior en route to a second-place finish in District 32, but he took the next step up the podium this time around, winning the 160-pound district title.
“He’s a great kid,” Atlantic City coach Tim Mancuso said. “He really put his time into it, so it’s exciting. He has a great work ethic and a gas tank that never stops.”
Mancuso, assistant coach Jeff Black — a former Absegami state wrestling champ — and other members of the team’s staff drove Balmaceda to various offseason tournaments and competitions throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
“Everybody takes pride in Cesar doing well,” Mancuso said. “They know what Atlantic City is all about and where our kids are coming from, and they take pride in that.”
But obstacles continued to challenge Balmaceda.
In October, Hiraki, Balmaceda and his family lost their first-story apartment and almost everything they owned to Hurricane Sandy. The family is still not back in their home. Balmaceda left with just the clothes on his back.
Since then, he’s been living with friends and family while the search for a permanent place to live continues.
And still he has no complaints.
“Any time you see him, he’s got a big smile on his face,” Black said. “He’s one of those guys that’s always in a good mood. You never hear him complain. He’s just a tough kid that works really hard.”
Balmaceda won his first 29 matches of the season this year before losing a decision to 2012 state qualifier Brandon Keena, of Nutley, on Feb. 16.
Three wins at districts give him a 32-1 record heading into today’s Region 8 quarterfinal, where he is seeded third.
Balmaceda became the Vikings’ second district champ (Julio Matos-Nunez won in 2011) since the program restarted six seasons ago. He will now try to become the school’s first region champ since the restart and the first state qualifier since the early 1970s.
The top three finishers in each weight class at this weekend’s Region 8 tournament at Egg Harbor Township High School will advance to the state tournament at Boardwalk Hall next weekend.
“That would be an honor,” Balmaceda said. “That’s one of my dreams, one of my goals. That’s one of the reasons I worked so hard from day one when I learned about what districts, regions and states were.
“This year I said, ‘Even if I take third in regions, I just want to get to states.’”
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