S E C T I O N
June 22, 2011 ■ Stories about people and events in A
S TAT E
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the community. 29
Going to the mat Beechwood’s first wrestling club takes team trophy
By Sandy Brundage
ld fashioned double! Old fashioned double!” Coach Nathan Pantoja’s commands echo off the walls of the Onetta Harris Senior Center in Belle Haven as his young wrestlers scrabble to stay on their feet during practice. “Finish! Finish! Beautiful.” The Beechwood Wrestling Club started from scratch back in September, thanks to Mr. Pantoja and a former Menlo Park police officer, James Lavano, who drove down once a week from Sacramento to help coach. “We’re making it work through donations,” said Mr. Pantoja. “One lady covered an entire trip, $600, for food, hotel rooms.” Donated time, donated space, donated mats. Sometimes it even takes asking for more time, to spread out payments.
Almanac Staff Writer
Almanac photos by
All the generosity has carried the team to tournaments as far away as Sacramento. At their last meet, 11 of the 12 elementary school kids who competed earned medals. Not bad for wrestlers who didn’t know a sprawl from a belly down 10 months ago. As practice continues on a warm Thursday afternoon, the corners of the room sometimes fill with those who “got hit in the soft spots,” as one young man put it. Fifteen recruits eventually responded to 2,000 fliers advertising the club. If potentially painful practice isn’t enough to frighten away prospects, the uniforms might be. “At first, absolutely, you don’t want to wear the singlets,” admitted Mr. Pantoja. “But now they’re sold on what wrestling is. It’s one of the most charactertesting sports. It’s just you on the mat; you have to have courage to get out there. And to go out there and lose.”
His wrestlers have done their share of winning, though. They’ve become the undercover team to beat, according to their coach. The club took home the Peninsula League Elementary Division second-place trophy in May. Girls just wanna have fun
One team member, sixth-grader Bianca Vargas, stood out not only for her skills, but also for how she chose to deploy them. Girls wrestling boys made national headlines in February. In Iowa, Cassy Herkelman, 14, became the first girl to win a state wrestling match there after her male opponent refused to wrestle a girl, according to the Associated Press. So far, Bianca hasn’t encountered that problem, although someday soon her wrestling skills might send the boys running from the ring for different reasons.
Peninsula League Championship Beechwood Wrestling Club results: ■ 1st Place: 90 lbs., Anthony Sanchez; 100 lbs., Alex Ruiz Sanchez; and 52 lbs., Casey Hall ■ 2nd Place: 123 lbs., Jordan Palacios; and 99 lbs., Angel Vargas. ■ 3rd Place: 110 lbs., Raul Ponce; and 130 lbs., Mikael Billingsly. ■ 4th Place: 95 lbs., Bianca Vargas; 119 lbs., Ruben Ponce; 145 lbs., Aji Akinola; and 99 lbs., Quinnton Allen.
She took fourth place at the club’s last meet, losing to two boys — and beating two others. “Pinned one of them,” said Mr. Pantoja. Bianca could have won an individual See BEECHWOOD, page 23
ABOVE: Rolling up a mat after practice are, from left, Angel Vargas, Jean-Carlos Gomez, Anthony Sanchez, Coach Nathan Pantoja and Bianca Vargas. IN THE COVER PHOTO, Coach Nathan Pantoja instructs Anthony Sanchez (in the red shirt), who is wrestling with his brother, Alex Ruiz. Almanac photo by Michelle Le. June 22, 2011 N The Almanac N 21
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Almanac photo by Michelle Le
Flanked by male teammates, Bianca Vargas, center, checks out the new wrestling singlets donated by a parents group. Angel Vargas is on the left and Anthony Sanchez on the right.
BEECHWOOD continued from page 21
championship in the girls division, according to her coach, but decided to wrestle with the boys to rack up team points. “She almost took third; it was a very close tough match,” her coach said. Mr. P cares
Mr. Pantoja’s day job entails leading legions of Beechwood students through the complexities of language and history. He’s taught at the private, nonprofit school in Menlo Park for four years. The 30-year-old teacher admitted the lessons don’t stop at the edge of the wrestling mat. “Correcting grammar on the mat, it happens!” he said, laughing. “I’m on them — ‘Did you do your homework?’” The lessons he teaches have extended beyond the classroom and the club. “We all have the
capacity to care, but a lot of times we don’t do so,” said Vince Lin, who filmed a short documentary about the club to show people how easy it is to make a difference. Easy, maybe, but not effortless. Mr. Pantoja was looking forward to taking a month off during the summer. But he’ll be back. “I’m in it for the long haul.” So is assistant coach Joey Christopherson, 17, who wrestles at Palo Alto High School’s varsity team. Plans for the club’s second year include competing in two leagues from January through May. Champions
The kids travel from Belle Haven, the Willows, East Palo Alto, and other nearby communities to practice three afternoons a week. Quinnton Allen, 12, is a boy of few words but many moves. Asked how wrestling makes him feel, he