If a wrestler gets away, the opponent can score a point. That can be a lot on the mat, as big as six points on the gridiron.
That’s the mentality junior linebacker Rudy Hernandez and sophomore defensive end Thomas Hatton have when they line up on defense for the Napa High football team.
“Wrestling helps with tackling,” said Hatton, who wrestled at 222 pounds for the JV Grizzlies last winter. “You can see that a lot of the people who wrestled last year having better tackling (form) than the people who didn’t wrestle.”
Hernandez, who wrestled for head coach Nacho Franco’s JV team at 172s last winter, agreed.
“Wrestling forces you to have discipline and muscle memory; it all tags into tackling,” he said.
Asked of wrestling practice is as hard as football practice, Hernandez said “Probably harder.”
“Yeah, our coach (Franco) is a CrossFit coach, so he has us working hard,” added Hatton. “I feel like wrestling is an individual sport when you’re actually competing. But you still bond as a team when you’re in those closed quarters every day, and it’s nice to see people there to support you when you’re actually wrestling. While you’re in the match you don’t really think about anything besides that match, so it’s a way to get stuff out of your head, let everything out. After the match, even if you feel horrible, you still know you did the best you could.”
Hernandez likes that things are more under one’s own control as a wrestler.
“You kinda don’t have to depend on anyone, so it kinda adds value to whatever you earn,” he said. “If you get a medal or a certain place, first, second or third, you know that’s how much you’ve worked for and that’s how much you need to work on if you want to place better next time.”
Ask them if wrestling give them the stamina to play four solid quarters of football on a Friday night, thought, and they might say that, actually, football helps them wrestle six hard minutes on the mat.
“Our football coaches condition us to be good,” Hatton said. “We have 30 minutes out on the track to enhance our mobility and we have 30 minutes in the weight room to do explosive workouts that help us with our movement and keep our endurance and everything, so it’s a really good plan.”
Football players who also wrestle are a rarity. Even less common are three-sport athletes who do those – such as Hernandez, who also runs track, and Hatton, who also plays baseball.
Although football head coach Richie Wessman limits Hatton and Hernandez to defense in his platooning system, the pair have succeeded in different positions on that side of the ball this year.
“Rudy is extremely intelligent – extremely intelligent. He’s a great student and hard worker,” Wessman said. “He’s a leader-by-example kind of guy because you can plug him into any spot and he does it well.”
Thomas, who managed football’s equivalent of two wrestling escapes by tackling a Vallejo ball carrier for a safety early this season, also has a team-high three fumble recoveries.
“Thomas is absolutely smart,” Wessman said. “He plays a position that, generally speaking, you don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to play well, but he is a sharp guy who leads by example and works his tail off. It’s important to him and he shows that every day in practice.”
Going into Friday’s Vine Valley Athletic League home game against Justin-Siena, Hatton is second with 23 tackles and Hernandez fifth with 15 on a team that rotates players in and out frequently.
They lead the team in sacks – Hernandez with three and Hatton with two – and hope to add more when they face prolific Justin-Siena quarterback Hudson Beers. The junior is on a pace to surpass 2,000 yards this week.
“That just means they’re going to be pass setting, so we’ve got to pass rush and have more sacks,” Hatton said matter-of-factly. “We treat every opponent the same. We treat them as people that have talent and can beat us if we don’t do what we need to do. But if everyone does their jobs on the field, 1 through 11, we’re a heck of a talented football team and it’s hard to stop us.
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Added Hernandez, “We’ve faced mostly run-heavy teams, so we’ve just got to adjust. If every single individual does their job and executes their assignment correctly, there’s no reason we shouldn’t get that tackle or that loss of yards.”
Being varsity rookies, the two weren’t part of last year’s winless season any more than first-year skipper Wessman was. But they are tasked with helping fans put it behind.
“Considering our varsity went 0-10 last year, there’s been a lot of pressure having to set the tone for the school,” Hernandez said.
“We had a lot of talent last year that we still have this year, but I feel like last year’s team wasn’t really close together and there wasn’t really a good connection between everyone. People weren’t showing up to practice,” Hatton said. “Our new coach has really turned that around. He has a more disciplined practice plan and everyone’s grown closer because there are actual position groups and everything.”
Also helping the team jell has been Napa High defensive coordinator Askari Adams, a former Penn State safety who isn’t afraid to take away a player’s starting spot.
“He’ll switch you like he doesn’t even know you,” said Hernandez.
“You’ve got to earn it every week,” added Hatton. “Our coaches don’t really go off your talent. They go off the amount of effort you put into practices and if you know your assignments more than someone who has raw talent but doesn’t really care about the team. (Adams) likes to have things go right because he knows our potential as a defense. He’s seen us when we play together, so he knows what we can do and he doesn’t like it when we mess up or we don’t know an assignment that we’ve been practicing since summer.”
Under Wessman, a former USC quarterback, the Grizzlies went from losing 35-7 to American Canyon last year to nearly stunning the Wolves in last week’s 14-7 loss.
“We had one of our best weeks of practices, and during our bye the week before we practiced really hard for a couple of days,” Hatton said. “Our coach has a method of keeping our bodies and our mental state most prepared for the game, and that’s helped a lot. I think everyone had the right mindset for the game. We just didn’t do some of the little things that we needed to do.”
“We kinda beat ourselves,” added Hernandez. “We were mainly the ones that caused all the penalties.”
Hatton has as much pride in Napa High football as anyone on the team, having grown up around the program while his father has been a longtime varsity staff member.
“I was a ball boy,” said the son of Steve and Karin Hatton. “I’ve been around it for so long and always wanted to play varsity, so actually getting to do it as a sophomore feels pretty good. I worked so hard to be here and I wanted it so bad that when I see (alumni) I tell them ‘Oh, I’m starting on varsity.’ I got to watch them play and now they can watch me play.”
Hernandez said his parents, Rudolfo and Gilda, are newer to the game.
“Freshman year they didn’t really care about it, until I told them I actually played,” he said. “Then they started to come out more during my JV year, and now they come to most of my games.”
How has he earned a starting varsity spot so quickly?
“I try to listen to the coaches; it’s pretty much nothing more than that,” said Hernandez, who works out at the Sheriff’s Activities League gym during the offseason. “If you want to put in extra work, you can go do it on your own and I go to the SAL center because it’s free. When I’m here, it’s pretty much about listening to the coaches and what they want you to do and how they want you to do it.”
Hatton said he and Hernandez were ready to affect change at the varsity level even before Wessman was hired.
“A lot of us came up from JV last year and a lot of the coaches from last year stuck with us, even through the hard times Napa High faced, and that made our JV team really close,” he said. “When we came up with a new coach who wanted a closer connection, we already had that. Bringing the (returning) varsity guys into that helped a lot, and it just grew our team even more.”