The track record of El Dorado County student-athletes going to four-year colleges to continue their careers is impressive.
Most, if not all of the major sports are covered: football, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, track and field, cross country, tennis and swimming.
But has an area athlete ever gone for boxing? Ever?
Thanks to trainer Norm Tavalero from Urban Sprawl Academy in El Dorado Hills, check that box off. Tavalero, a former All-American boxer at Sacramento who later fought in the U.S. Army in a 13-year career, tapped into a connection to make it possible for two recent area graduates.
Tavalero’s relationship with former University of Nevada, Reno boxer Mike Schellin has paved the way for Gabriel Mejorado (Ponderosa) and Manuel Ballesteros (Union Mine) to join the school’s club program and get their four-year degree.
“Norm said ‘I have a couple of kids I’d like you to look at’ so I made the trip,” Schellin said.
Undefeated in 32 colegiate fights while at UNR, Schellin can spot talent.
“They’re (Mejorado, Ballesteros) a step ahead having worked with Norm,” Schellin said. “They’re good kids, enthusiastic, looked good training and are willing to give it a shot.”
After 1960, the NCAA no longer santioned boxing when an accidental death dealt a blow to the sport at its height of popularity. The ensuing fallout gutted the sport, but its come back under the National Collegiate Boxing Association, which now mandates incoming boxers can’t have prior bouts.
“You’d see real talented amateur kids, but they’ve had 40, 50 fights which is an unfair advantage,” Schellin said. “Now we look for kids who want an education, and help learning how to defend themselves. By the time they’re done, they’re quite accomplished.”
Mejorado credits the opportunity to box at UNR after working with Tavalero as a path he’d never have taken.
“Without Norm, I wouldn’t have this opportunity, and probably have gone to Folsom Lake College not knowing what to do … I’d be lost and eventually in the military,” Mejorado said.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Mejorado’s dad convinced him to “learn to defend yourself.” While he loved it, Mejorado also excelled in martial arts before an injury put him back into the ring.
“I had been trying for UFC, but the injury took me out for four months, so I started up with boxing again, focused on it, stuck with it and fell in love with it all over again,” Mejorado said.
A family matter brought Mejorado to the foothills at a time others around him in Southern California were starting to join gangs that in his community was a way of life. He gives heaps of praise to his mother for keeping him on the straight and narrow, and getting him away from that pull to the position he’s now in.
“I was raised by a single mother who always had multiple jobs and did her best to keep food on the table and clothes on my back. For that I’m very grateful,” Mejorado said. “I’m a little nervous about UNR, but I believe I can do it — I have the willpower and skills plus I’ll get a college education. To me I have it all and couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Mejorado will be just the second member of his family to attend college.
Ballesteros follows in the footsteps of his father and older brother, both of whom boxed. He picked the sport up about four years ago when he met Tavalero, and the proposition to continue at the college level.
“Norm has taught me technique, footwork and character both inside and out of the ring,” Ballesteros said. “It’s helpful having him there to talk to. I wouldn’t have known about UNR without him, and that now motivates me to get better.”
Ballesteros played two years of soccer with the Diamondbacks. Without the UNR option, he envisioned going to Sacramento State. He credits his parents for their help and advice and Tavalero for pushing him to have the opportunity he faces.
“I’m excited … a little nervous … but more anxious,” Ballesteros said. I feel prepared — I’m eating right, staying in shape, going to the gym four days a week and running on the other days.”
His goal is to qualify for regionals all four years at UNR.
At 147 pounds, Ballesteros is a welterweight while Mejorado, at 119 pounds, is considered a lightweight.
Mejorado is from Shingle Springs, Ballesteros from Placerville. Both left this week for Reno.