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The success of the Vintage and Napa High wrestlers at Saturday’s Monticello Empire League Championships was fitting for where each program stands.

Hosted by Vintage at Napa High’s Messner Gym, the meet saw Vintage’s deep squad advance nine grapplers to next weekend’s CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I-A qualifier at Gregori High in Modesto – including the Crushers’ first MEL champion in seven years, 182-pound senior James Robert – and Napa advance six from its young squad.

The top four wrestlers in each weight class advanced automatically. The fifth-place finishers are alternates, and will compete next weekend if one of the top four in their weight class is not able to for some reason.

Also qualifying for Vintage were senior Kolton Dikeman, who was second at 132 pounds; juniors Tucker Lanoue (145), Antonio Macedo (152) and Justin Verville (220) and freshman Reece Imrie (113), who were third; and senior Renny Aguilar (170) and sophomores Tyler Linstad (120) and Konrad Fiske (285).

Napa High had four third-place finishers with junior Brady Bledsoe (170), sophomores Anthony Toscano (113) and Brandon Bledsoe (126), and freshman Benito Saldivar (120), and two fourth-placers in juniors Benjamin Salas (220) and Marcus Lex (285).

Napa head coach Nacho Franco said facing tough competition all season finally paid off.

“We’ve been putting our kids up against state-caliber kids at tournaments and they’ve had no luck, but today they did a great job. It’s nice to see them get what they’ve been working for,” he said.

The Indians also have four alternates who placed fifth – seniors Bryan Miranda (145), Wyatt Bruner (160) and Isaac Delgado (195), and junior Robert Navarette (138). Rounding out the Vintage contingent were sixth-placing sophomores Rene Lopez (138) and Saul Valle (160).

Robert, after opening with a second-period pin of Armijo sophomore Marco Correa in 2:59, pulled out a dramatic 8-6 decision over Vacaville sophomore Eric Hayward in his final. The stocky senior never trailed the taller Hayward, scoring a trademark quick takedown and making a nice juke of a Hayward shot to get another takedown for a 4-0 lead. The Bulldog used a reversal and escape to pull within 4-3 in the second period, but Robert scored two more takedowns and gave up only three more escapes.

Robert was so tired after having his hand by the referee raised, all he could do to celebrate was briefly crouch and clench his fists.

“I’m just getting off being sick right now, so I was definitely exhausted,” he said. “I’ve been getting sick, getting better, and getting sick again (since the holidays). Every wrestler is dealing with something, a little injury or sickness. Almost nobody is wrestling 100 percent at this point, so you just have to overcome that and not let it get in your way, especially in the postseason.”

Vintage head coach Travis Newton was impressed with Robert’s perseverance.

“By the third period, he was on fumes,” Newton said. “He was doing stuff like, ‘What was that?’ But after dealing with one thing after another last year, a knee injury and then pneumonia and mononucleosis, this year has been so incredible for him, and he deserves everything he gets. The boy works his butt off. A lot of people looking for excuses when things go wrong. He finds solutions and makes it happen.”

After advancing all the way to the Masters Meet as a sophomore, Robert had to miss the entire postseason as a junior due to illness, so he’s trying to make up for lost opportunities.

“Coming in as a freshman, our program wasn’t really ‘all that,’ but Coach (Travis) Newton helped my freshman class be the best by our senior year and turn the program around. I started wrestling just to stay in shape (for football) and have fun, but now it’s more than that. Now it’s less about me. I’m willing to fight for my coaches and team and parents.”

Robert is the first Crusher to win a league title since Steve Arrambide in 2011. He said senior Aleko Smith was his main practice partner before getting sidelined by injury, and that he’s been sparring with Macedo, Lanoue and Dominic Smith since.

“We’re all like brothers, and it’s great to see everybody succeed, like Verville,” Robert said. “It’s his first year of wrestling so he doesn’t know a lot, but he’s got the right mindset and he’s all right with fighting; he’s just got to learn more technique.”

Perennial MEL champion Vacaville dominated this meet as much as any over the years, qualifying all 14 of its wrestlers for the finals and winning 12 titles – four by first-period pin. But since crowds tend to root for underdogs, the whole gym cheered for Robert when he won, just as it had for Rodriguez junior Isaiah Ferrando when he knocked off a Bulldog for the 106-pound title.

“It’s definitely easier to bring the intensity when you know you’re going against a powerhouse team,” Robert said, “knowing you’re the underdog and that you have to do your best.”

Dikeman (132) was one of the first-period victims in his final, getting pinned by Vacaville junior Zane Martin.

“I think they sent four or five guys to state last year, and that does play with your mind,” Dikeman said. “The way they warm up individually and as a team, doing the exact same thing, drilling like a team, carries a sort of intimidation factor and it kinda messed with my head because I definitely didn’t wrestle my best match. I was thinking too far ahead, not about the ‘now.’ I was trying to set up a move when he got me down and it crushed my plan.”

But Dikeman was happy with his semifinal pin of Rodriguez senior Cameron Pimental in the semifinals, with eight seconds left in the second period.

“I was starting to get discouraged because he was shooting on me, but he wasn’t very good at his defense and I managed to catch him and do my own variation of a ‘barbwire’ and pin him.”

Added Newton, “That was a real big upset by Kolton in the semis. That was pretty awesome. He didn’t give himself a chance in the final. He made a critical mistake, trying a Peterson (roll from the bottom position). But I think that’s his first time in a final since middle school.”

The mop of light-blue hair Dikeman has donned all season was closely cropped on Saturday, but not to help him mentally prepare for the postseason dogfight. He wants to serve in the U.S. Marines, and said his mother made him get a haircut before he took an entry test – even though she doesn’t approve of his plan.

“It’s been my plan since freshman year to be a soldier,” said Dikeman, who has great-grandfathers who served in the Air Force and Army. “I’m from Wyoming, and the wrestling team at the university there is in the top 25. After four years in the Marines, I might further my education there and try to wrestle as a walk-on.”

Macedo said the Crushers should have had more postseason qualifiers, as hard as their coaches work.

“A lot of people in our program were not all in, and they quit halfway through the season, so I’m proud to be one of the guys who got third and is moving on. I thank our coaches for doing all the work they’ve done the last three years. I’m a lot more confident going into (the postseason) this year than last because I got a lot of practice in with Coach Jaret (Newton) over the summer.”

Macedo said he also takes special precautions to make sure he doesn’t get sick during the season.

“I sleep well, l eat well, and I take a shower right after practice,” he said. “You’ve got to clean yourself – those mats are just disgusting.”

But he said he was proud of Robert, one of his practice partners, for overcoming illness to win the title.

“I was nerve-wracked the entire match, but he wrestled very smart,” Macedo said. “I was proud of him for lasting all six minutes and working hard.”

Lanoue was proud to qualify for his first Division I-A meet after reaching the Division II meet for American Canyon at the Solano County Athletic Conference Championships last year.

“The MEL is a lot harder than the SCAC. The SCAC is just American Canyon and Benicia, but the MEL is a dogfight with every team. I feel like the extra challenge has made me better.”

Tucker classily didn’t bring up the controversial call that cost him in a 4-3 semifinal loss to a Vacaville opponent. Newton said both wrestlers stopped due to confusion over what the referee signaled when he heard a whistle from the match on the adjacent mat, and Lanoue was suddenly taken down from behind for two crucial points.

“That was ridiculous,” Newton said.

Franco has one of the youngest teams in his 20 season as Napa High head coach and on Saturday, none of his three healthy seniors were able to get automatic postseason berths.

“It wasn’t Wyatt’s or Isaac’s day. Both were seeded third, but both had tough losses against Wood wrestlers. You hope your senior year lasts a little bit longer, but things happen for a reason and you grow from that. Wyatt’s been the leader of the pack in the room. He’s the smartest kid on the team with a 4.5 GPA and he’s heading into the Navy and we’re excited for him.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.