Benefield: Elsie Allen wrestlers deliver rare pennant for school

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Subscribe

It doesn’t look like much, that felt banner. It’s not huge, the font isn’t wild or even noteworthy. But the words across the pennant are, in fact, worthy of note: Redwood Wrestling Boys, Winter North Bay League 2019.

What does it mean? In the hands of Ricky Alcala and Alex Duerr, it means that the Elsie Allen High wrestling team is North Bay League-Redwood Division co-champs with Montgomery and Rancho Cotate. It’s the first time an Elsie wrestling team has won a league title and it’s only the sixth time in school history that any Elsie team has won a league pennant.

“I’m from Elsie, so I have experienced a lot of losses in sports history,” sophomore Oscar Sotelo said. “So that banner means a lot. People are like, ‘Oh it’s a league champ’ and they point at the wrestlers. Sometimes I say it too, because I’m proud.”

The school opened in 1994. In the ensuing years, just five teams have won a league champion banner: the 1998 and 1999 boys track teams, the 2014-15 boys basketball team and the 2016 and 2017 boys soccer teams.

That’s it.

“If you think about it, it’s kind of sad,” Alcala said.

Alcala teaches Spanish at Elsie. Assistant coach Duerr teaches P.E. They understand the school’s struggles to not only field teams, but to produce wins. They feel it. And they know the kids do, too.

“These kids deserve more. That feeling of accomplishment in a sport, when you work so hard at something and at the end of the day, all that hard work pays off, it does something to you,” Alcala said. “It’s sad that not that many teams have experienced that.”

Alcala, who wrestled at both UC Davis and at Indiana University, where he was an All-American, is a competitive person. He’s used to winning.

And he could feel that students at Elsie were not. At the start of the season, when he told student athletes they had the potential to win league, reaction was a kind of disbelief.

“It was like an unopened opened door for kids,” he said. “No one has ever experienced that, no one has seen it — it’s like they don’t believe it exists.”

But the team, young and filled with athletes who had never wrestled before, started to take shape. The coaches worked to make believers out of them.

When they lost a dual meet with Rancho, hopes were dashed. Then Rancho lost to Montgomery. When Elsie beat Montgomery, they forced a three-way tie for league supremacy and secured a piece of history.

Still it might have been all a bit abstract until first-year principal Gabriel Albavera showed up at the weight room this week and unfurled the pennant. The room ignited. One wrestler grabbed the pennant, held it to his shoulders and ran around the room as if wearing a cape, Alcala said.

“The boys went absolutely nuts,” Duerr said. “It was one of those great coaching moments.”

It’s been a long time in the making.

Four years ago, the wrestling roster had two boys and two girls. Total. By the end of the season, the two girls had quit, so Alcala ended the season with two athletes on this team.

This year, the wrestling squad has the largest roster of any team on campus. Not bad for a sport that to many outsiders, doesn’t exactly sell itself with a high fun factor. Wrestling is for a special kind of athlete and a special kind of person. On campus every day, Alcala and Duerr said they encourage all comers to try out, but it’s a unique person who finds joy in wrestling. And a tough person who stays.

Alcala credited the success of an early wrestler, Alan Aguirre, who placed seventh at the North Coast Section meet last year, with spurring a little excitement on campus — which lured more athletes to come out. But it is also the combination of Alcala and Duerr.

“They had gone through a number of different coaches before I showed up,” Alcala said. “The turnover made it difficult to keep wrestlers on the team.”

“The consistency of coaches — over the years, just staying here,” Alcala said. “Having a face to the program really helps.”

It helps to have the right face, too.

“The biggest key to our program is coach Alcala,” Duerr said. “Most good teachers, we try to build that relationship with our kids, rapport with our students … Ricky is hands on. Kids respect him, kids trust him. They are like, ‘Alright, Mr. Alcala hasn’t done us wrong, I trust him, I’ll go out.’ Half our team is from that.”

That worked on Kevin Venegas.

“Alcala was talking about it since I was a freshman,” he said. “My first year I came out, I wasn’t that good. I was kind of overweight so I wasn’t that good and I quit, sadly. But last year and this year I decided to stick through it, lost a lot of weight and just keep pushing me to be a better person every single day, get better every single day.”

Venegas, wrestling at 154 pounds, got a crucial pin against Montgomery in the dual meet that put Elsie Allen in the history books.

“Elsie Allen sports have never been big,” senior Sebastian Sotelo said. “I think this could change that. All you need is, like, a spark to start a lot. This has the potential to do a lot.”

It already has. The team will gather in the pre-dawn hours Friday to travel to Ukiah for the North Bay League championship meet, where Oak and Redwood division athletes will battle for individual title honors as well a combined team title. The meet will also determine which athletes move on to the North Coast Section tournament.

Elsie Allen has athletes who could make the cut.

At practice Thursday, the coaches ran meet simulations, pushing pairs through three rounds, then overtime, then double overtime.

You lose and your season is done, they said. Who wants it?

The wrestling room, jammed with bodies, had been oddly quiet throughout the practice as the athletes worked their way through 90 minutes of drills. But at the final live wrestling segment, grunts and gasping grew louder and louder. Two athletes drew blood.

Duerr and Alcala didn’t have to ask who wants it. The blood, the sweat — that was all anyone needed to see.

Elsie Allen wrestling has now had a taste of victory and has smashed through what Alcala described as an unopened door. There’s no going back now.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine