Memorial Stadium has hosted different outdoor sports over the years, but never an indoor sport — until Wednesday evening, when Napa and Vintage squared off in the first-ever outdoor Big Game wrestling meet.
“This setting is really unique,” said Napa High senior standout Cole Lex, who also led the offensive line in football. “Last week we wrestled at Petaluma and we were still outside. But being in the stadium. It’s kinda like football. It’s my last time on this field. There’s a lot of memories here. I can’t wait to come back and see the football team and hopefully they wrestle here again next year. It was a great experience.”
They wrestled on a large yellow mat sporting the Crushers’ red logo and placed at the 50-yard line on the Vintage side of the field.
“It’s pretty exciting, honestly, just like the fact that we’re the first group of wrestlers to wrestle here,” Vintage junior Niko Smith said.
The Vine Valley Athletic League decided to focus on participation and experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and not score wrestling meets or have team or individual champions this season. But there will always be bragging rights when these crosstown rivals meet. Also making the meet special was that it was Senior Night for both programs.
“It’s just been a really unique year and I think it brought the whole team closer together. My teammates came into the year as my friends, but they ended the year as my family,” Lex said. “There were obviously less numbers on both sides of the meet tonight, but it will always be a special year. It’s my senior year and it would have been personally special to me either way. But I think even in the community this year is gonna be remembered, and we’re making the best of it.”
With wrestling in the most restrictive tier of sports only a few months ago because of the pandemic, it wasn’t known if there would be a season at all. That wasn’t lost on the competitors and the decent sized crowd that came to cheer them on.
“The season wasn't supposed to happen so, first of all, I’m really grateful that it happened in the first place,” said Napa High senior Rudy Hernandez, who was also a football standout. “To kind of sum it up, I just am pretty grateful for everything that's happened this year and everyone that came together to put this season together and help everyone out.”
After three junior varsity matches, the varsity meet opened with the first of three matches between a boy and girl, a 115-pound bout between Napa High freshman Chris Gaxiola and Vintage’s Alaina Corliss. Gaxiola was in control for most of the contest, as he utilized double-leg takedowns with high success. Despite getting taken down many times, Corliss didn’t give up a pin. But Gaxiola won by 22-6 technical fall, achieving the 15-point margin needed to stop the match in the third period.
After Vintage’s Jack Maurer picked up a forfeit in the 122-pound division, Napa High sophomore Jose Leyva and Vintage’s Cassady Lopez at 128 pounds. This was the most even of the mixed-gender bouts, with Lopez — a former Napa Sheriff’s Activities League Wrestling Club standout — controlling most of the first round. She took a 2-0 lead into the second frame, when Leyva found an opening and capitalized on it for the pin.
Napa High continued its strong start when senior Manuel “Rabbit” Infante took on Cody Morton at 134 pounds. Similarly to when he ran the ball for the Grizzlies in football, Infante used his speed to create opportunities. He quickly found himself in a superior position, but wasn’t able to finish off a pin against the resilient Morton. Infante led 2-0 after one period and 5-0 after two. Morton battled and avoided the pin, but Infante finished with an 11-2 victory.
While Infante used his speed, fellow Grizzlies tailback Benito Saldivar used his strength in the 140-pound division. From the opening whistle, the senior was in control of Vintage’s Jeremiah Macedo. The hardnosed ball carrier scored multiple takedowns in the opening frame and continually scored points on his opponent. Saldivar led 10-2 going into the second period, when he won by 18-3 technical fall.
Next to face off were Napa High’s’s Robbie Gomez and the Crushers’ Clayton Gambill at 147 pounds. Gomez, who led for most of the opening frame, went for a takedown late in the round by lifting Gambill into the air. While dropping the Crusher to the mat, Gomez’s nose started to bleed. The match was halted with 16 seconds left in the first round while the biohazard team came out and cleaned the mat. Once his nose stopped bleeding, Gomez continued his strong wrestling and pinned Gambill with 56 seconds remaining in the third period.
Vintage started to come back in the 154-pound class, where senior Stephen Ramirez was in full control of his contest against Axel Briseno from the start. Ramirez continued his strong form in the second round, as Briseno wasn’t able to make up any ground from constant pressure. Just 24 seconds into the final frame, Ramirez finished the match with a pin.
“You just have to keep your head cool and you have to control the match, not be controlled,” Ramirez said. “My coach always told me, ‘Be patient and stick to the plan,’ so I stuck to the plan and I was patient, and I attacked.”
Niko Smith took the stage next and Vintage’s 162-pounder was all action. With the ability to weaponize pace and use of cardiovascular fitness, he quickly racked up points against Napa High’s Graham Gongora.
“That’s the key: you have to be relentless, non-stop. You can’t stop pushing forward. You have to be the aggressor pretty much the entire match,” Smith said. “I have trust in my work. I put a lot of effort in, so I went into the match pretty confident.”
After taking a 7-1 lead into the second period, Smith finally picked up the pin with 15 seconds remaining.
“I am proud of Niko Smith,” Ramirez said. “He’s been my (practice) partner throughout the whole season and my last season, and he pushed me and I pushed him. He was able to keep up with the high pace and I was really surprised about that. He was willing to put in the work, and I appreciate that. I wish him the best and good luck to him to keep on going as hard as he can.”
Dylan Smith, the Napa Valley’s leading rusher in football this spring, continued the winning trend for Vintage when he faced Nathan Schwarze at 172 pounds. One of the more even matches of the afternoon, the low-scoring contest allowed for some excellent battling for position. Schwarze was ahead 2-0 after the first round, but Smith pulled off a pin with 30 seconds remaining in the second period for the victory.
Hernandez had one of the quicker matches of the meet, taking 1:18 to pin Vintage’s Jessica Mendieta.
“I did what I had to do. I woke up and went through my normal routine,” Hernandez said. “I felt pretty good at the end of the day and I prepared so that I wouldn’t regret anything from today.”
Another defensive standout on the gridiron, Napa High junior Thomas Hatton, finished off a pin of Edgar Navarro in the final seconds of the first period at 197 pounds.
The final match of the historic day was a crowd-pleasing 222-pound showdown between Vintage’s Joe Ellis and Napa High’s Gunnar Reger. Ellis had a 6-2 advantage after the opening round and secured the ping just 39 seconds into the second frame.
Lex won the heavyweight division by forfeit, but his season is not over yet. He’ll be heading to the state tournament after picking up an invite to the prestigious event.
“I feel extremely blessed to be able to go to the state meet. I'm really looking forward to some great competition,” Lex said. “Those kids down in the Southern California area, there are a lot of big dogs there and I just love the competition. It’s gonna be really fun.”
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