'That was for Coach Hixon'

Stoneman Douglas wrestler Sara Ochoa hugs Daniel Sanchez after pinning her opponent in 16 seconds. Sanchez assumed coaching duties after the death of Chris Hixon. Andrew Kaufman for ESPN

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- "Stoneman Douglas is close."

That announcement came from Coral Springs High School athletic director Dan Jacob as wrestlers, coaches and spectators waited for the District 12 AAA sectionals to start Wednesday afternoon. "Coaches, make sure your teams are ready."

Jacob was more than willing to accommodate the Eagles wrestlers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They were on their way from Nativity Catholic Church in Hollywood, some 30 miles away, where they had been attending the funeral mass for Christopher Hixon, their coach and athletic director at Stoneman Douglas. He was one of 17 people killed in the Ash Wednesday massacre at the Florida school just a week before. A Navy veteran of the Gulf War, he had died after racing in a golf cart toward the sound of gunfire, trying to protect the people he considered family.

It had been a stirring service for Hixon, a 49-year-old father of two sons and two adopted daughters, a loving husband to Debra, herself a school administrator. Gov. Rick Scott was at the church, as was Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who said Pope Francis had sent his condolences.

At one poignant moment in the service, the Rev. David Zarilli spoke directly to Corey, the Hixons' 18-year-old son with Down syndrome, and told him that the the pews were filled with people -- students, parents, teachers and coaches -- who were there for him. "We want you to know we are with you. You should be very proud of your dad. You were so lucky to have him. ... When his students were in trouble, he didn't run away. He wanted to protect those children. And he did."

As a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace," the funeral procession headed toward the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth, where Hixon was given a 21-gun salute while his wrestlers and some of their parents rode a chartered bus to Coral Springs High.

And that itself was another tribute to Chris Hixon.

"He would've wanted them to continue," said women's basketball coach and assistant athletic director Marilyn Rule, who attended the service. "To go out there and wrestle, and do the best they can."

When they walked through the back door of the gym, they found themselves parting a sea of opposing wrestlers, all applauding as spectators rose to their feet to join the ovation. Leading the team in Hixon's stead was Daniel Sanchez, another service veteran (Army sergeant major) who had enlisted as Hixon's assistant last November. Sanchez took the wrestlers into a workout room just off the main floor to compose themselves for the matches ahead.

Sanchez had brought 13 wrestlers, 12 of them male. The 13th was Sara Ochoa, who provided her own surprise salute to Coach Hixon. Wrestling in the 160-pound weight class, the sophomore drew a freshman from Monarch High School in the first round. When her opponent dove for her legs, she hooked her arms under his armpits and flipped him over with a move she had learned in judo. She pinned him -- in 16 seconds -- and just after the referee raised Ochoa's arm, she ran straight into the arms of Sanchez.

"That was for Coach Hixon," Ochoa said once she had turned in her score sheet. "He encouraged me, made me feel a part of the team, made me run when I didn't want to run. All I kept thinking at the funeral was that I would never hear him say, 'Sara, stop dancing on the mat.' Oh God, I hope he was watching that."

Her mother, Valeria Ochoa, called it "pure heart power."

"Boom! Just like that. My heart was bursting," said Valeria Ochoa, a golf pro from Colombia. "Sara loved Coach Hixon, and I did, too, for what he gave her. I am so happy, my family is so happy. Except that my other kids are also mad at me now because my video of the match is so shaky."

Valeria Ochoa and other members of the Stoneman Douglas wrestling community were wearing white T-shirts that read, in part: "YOU GUYS ARE MY FAMILY" -- CHRIS HIXON. That devotion to his students is why Hixon was named Broward County's Athletic Director of the Year in 2017. At various times, when the need arose, he also coached cross country, volleyball, basketball and track and field, all for no extra pay. And he would often take Corey along with him on his rounds.

Oakland A's pitching prospect Jesus Luzardo, a 2016 graduate of Douglas, is so grateful to Hixon for supporting his baseball dreams that he has created a YouCaring page to raise money for a college scholarship in his honor.

Being a former high school wrestler himself in Easton, Pennsylvania, Hixon took particular pleasure in that sport, and in this team.

"Chris and I were talking about our expectations for the sectionals last week," Sanchez said. "We were thinking fourth in the team standings, maybe, if we had a really good day, third."

Sara Ochoa was pinned in her semifinal match, but she won in the consolation rounds to qualify for the upcoming regionals. Matt Kelly, who was unseeded at 195, ended up winning the division, in what Sanchez called, "our Cinderella story."

The one weight class Douglas was counting on was 106, where sophomore captain Jason Wolk was undefeated at 32-0. But Nico Cava of Monarch gave him all that he could handle in their final, forcing a one-minute overtime tied at 12 points apiece.

"That's when Coach Hixon kicked in," said Wolk, who picked up a quick two points to win the match. "I couldn't let him down."

Stoneman Douglas finished second in the sectionals, behind only host Coral Springs.

"As sad as I am that Chris couldn't experience it, that's how proud I am of these kids," Sanchez said after the tournament ended at 10 p.m. "What resilience. It's been a long day for them. A long week."

At the end of the tournament, all of the wrestlers received a mug with an etching of Hixon's image -- another reminder of how selfless teachers and coaches can be.

Yes, Stoneman Douglas is close.