Newport Harbor High senior wrestler Mason Murphy is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week.

Newport Harbor High senior wrestler Mason Murphy is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week. (Scott Smeltzer | Daily Pilot / January 10, 2013)

Mason Murphy returned to Newport Harbor High last school year as a different kid.

In his previous two stints at the school, he said they lasted only a couple of months before being removed because he wasn't doing too well in school. He says he has changed after spending time at a continuation school.

Back at Newport Harbor, Murphy decided to try out for a sport. The school didn't offer kickboxing, a combat sport that allowed him to let out his frustrations.

"I was kind of an angry little guy," Murphy said. "I was like, 'Maybe hitting the bag [with my arms and legs] will help.' It helped a lot."

Murphy said the closest thing Newport Harbor offered to kickboxing was wrestling. He wasn't used to fighting on the ground, and without gloves, yet he approached the Sailors' coach, Dominic Bulone.

Bulone, always looking for wrestlers, gave Murphy a chance. In that first year, Murphy worked out with the varsity wrestlers, but never competed in varsity matches.

"I lost all the time," Murphy said of that first season. "I only wrestled a couple of times, but every time I lost. I had to change."

Lack of experience, Murphy said, was the reason why he failed and never wrestled on varsity. None of that deterred him from returning for his senior year.

Bulone encouraged Murphy to come back, telling him, "I have high hopes for you next year."

Murphy believed in what Bulone said. Bulone told him he was going to be a very good wrestler because of his training in kickboxing, a martial arts sport that is not for the faint of heart.

He was right. Murphy has turned into a very good wrestler in his final season with the Sailors. The 170-pounder is winning a lot this season. He's 18-6 and the team's top wrestler.

Last weekend, Murphy placed fourth in his weight class at the Asics Southern California Challenge at Tustin High. During the two-day tournament, he went 5-2. That performance has led to an invitation to one of the premier tournaments in the state.

On Wednesday night, Bulone informed Murphy that he'll compete at the Five Counties Invitational at Fountain Valley High Jan. 18-19. While most wrestlers know of this tournament, which features many of the state's best teams and wrestlers, Murphy admits he had not heard about it until last weekend.

It was on the second day of the Asics Southern California Challenge that Five Counties came up. Bulone brought it up after seeing Murphy win each of his three matches on the first day, and then his first match the next day.

"He said if I placed at Asics that I could get invited," said Murphy, who learned that Five Counties is the closest thing to the CIF State tournament and only a couple of other wrestlers during Bulone's 14 years at Newport Harbor have competed at Five Counties. "I was like, 'Oh! That's awesome!'"

The level of competition rose each time Murphy won. He pinned his first two opponents, then pulled out two close victories.

The most difficult of the first four wins was the third match against Buena Park's Miguel Pimentel.

"This guy was like ripped. He was a huge guy, way bigger than me," said Murphy, who's 5-foot-11. "I beat him by one point. I knew I could beat him."

That's not what Murphy said to himself before he and Pimentel went at it on the mat.

"I kind of tell myself I'm going to lose," Murphy said of a mental game that usually works for him whenever he's facing a tough opponent. "It kind of … pushes me even harder, because I don't want to lose."