Despite a devastating tragedy and a change of schools, Hillsdale senior Kristal Betanzo is bound for the state championship stage.

Betanzo took second place Saturday at the Central Coast Section girls’ wrestling championships for the 101-pound division, earning a bid to the CIF State Wrestling Championships starting Thursday.

Prior to her senior year, though, Betanzo suffered a tragedy when former Oceana wrestler Andrew Shiokari committed suicide June 29, 2018. Shiokari was Betanzo’s boyfriend of two years at the time, and the emotional trauma she suffered in the aftermath caused her to contemplate quitting wrestling altogether.

“It was a big ordeal if I was even going to be able to wrestle or not,” Betanzo said.

Her first three years of high school, Betanzo spent at Aragon. She was a Peninsula Athletic League champion at 101s as a junior, and went on to place fourth at CCS in 2018.

Instead of walking away from the sport at which she had excelled her entire life, however, Betanzo got a change of scenery. She transferred to neighboring Hillsdale, specifically because the grief counseling offered by the San Mateo Union High School District is based at the Hillsdale campus, she said.

By the time it was time to report for the girls’ wrestling season, Betanzo had made her decision. She was present and accounted for at Hillsdale’s opening practice, and has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

“From the start she was always committed,” Hillsdale head coach Oscar Gonzalez said. “She never stepped away from the team at any point. And as coaches, we all supported her with what she was going through.”

Betanzo has made plenty of friends through the world of wrestling. She and Shiokari met through their mutual love of the sport. She has since maintained friendships with many wrestlers from Oceana, and even spars with individuals from the team on a regular basis.

It was Betanzo’s support from Shiokari’s friends and former Oceana teammates — he graduated high school in 2017 — that made her realize she could not walk away from the mat.

“It made me realize — I knew his teammates and friends, and how close they were — so I felt like I’d be quitting on them as well,” Betanzo said.

It has been over seven months since Shiokari’s death, and still the despair is readily apparent in Betanzo. Just after the senior’s CCS championship match Saturday at Independence High School, during a post-match interview, she was detailing her relationship with Shiokari, holding back immediate tears, her voice wavering, yet not hesitating in the least at telling her story.

“Emotionally she was still unstable a little bit,” Oceana head coach Mike Tang said. “But I think she took it out on a lot of her opponents this year. She had an incredible season taking second (at CCS), and winning our league.”

Betanzo has overcome plenty of adversity in her wrestling career. At the start of her freshman year, she weighed in at 180 pounds. She underwent a strict running regiment, and went on to run 17 half marathons before her 16th birthday, she said. By wrestling season of her freshman year, she was competing at 126s.

Then as a sophomore, she sustained a serious injury on the mat, suffering a collapsed lung. She returned for her junior season to earn a PAL championship. This season at Hillsdale, she repeated as PAL champ at 101s.  

“As coaches, we’re always impressed with her strength and endurance,” Gonzalez said. “So, she’s made the adjustment pretty well.”

Now, Betanzo is closing her high school wrestling career on the sport’s biggest varsity stage. It will be her first appearance in the state wrestling tournament. The two-day tourney spans through Friday at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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