Empire wrestlers heading to state tournament

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Healdsburg wrestling team looked powerful as it prepared for the North Coast Section championships last week. Coach Scott Weidemier expected several of his athletes to medal, and many to win at least one match.

Healdsburg's Matt Tsarnas is one of eight Redwood Empire wrestlers competing at the state tournament this weekend. Photo by Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

In the week before the competition in Newark, though, one Healdsburg wrestler tired of trying to make weight and promptly left the team. Then, a mere hours before the action began, Weidemier learned that two of his boys failed to make grades. They wouldn’t be traveling to NCS either. And, well, one of his best wrestlers, Matthew Tsarnas, was fighting the flu. Things looked rosier when a Healdsburg wrestler jumped to a lead in the school’s first match of the tournament last Friday — but he got pinned in a scramble. And then Adam Hendrickson, arguably the Greyhounds’ best wrestler, strained his shoulder in a quarterfinal bout.

In what should have been its proudest moment on the mat, Healdsburg was flat on its back.

Amazingly, the Greyhounds turned it around with a stunning Saturday reversal and wound up sending four wrestlers — Tsarnas, Hendrickson, Ricardo Sandoval and Eric Chavez — to the CIF state championships in Bakersfield, where matches begin today at Rabobank Center. They are joined by Windsor’s Andres Torres (112 pounds), Casa Grande’s Jack Fausone (145), Rancho Cotate’s Anthony Navarro (171) and Clear Lake’s Robbie Hammers (152).

Torres might be the Redwood Empire’s best chance at a medal this year. But last weekend clearly belonged to Healdsburg, which sends four boys to state for the first time in program history despite being much smaller than most of the schools it competes against.

Among the four, Tsarnas may be the only one who doesn’t qualify as a surprise, though he did miss a couple days of practice with those flulike symptoms. Competing at 152 pounds, he now follows his father (Andy, 1980) and older brother (Andrew, 2007 and 2008) as CIF wrestlers. Weidemier and his staff spent much of the year getting Tsarnas to “turn that motor up” a little.

“He’s the most fundamentally sound wrestler I have in that room,” Weidemier said.

“He beats people straight ahead. But he would let matches get away because he’d wrestle very conservatively. He’d let guys stay close, and sometimes they’d find a move to steal it at the end.”

Tsarnas improved his mental and physical preparations during warm-ups, and it paid off. He finished second at NCS, and the kid who beat him, Victor Pereira of Newark, is ranked No. 2 in the state.

While Tsarnas has been wrestling for years, Sandoval has come almost out of nowhere to become a force at 171 pounds.

He moved to Healdsburg from Mexico two summers ago — before his sophomore year — with zero wrestling experience and minimal English language skills. He fought mostly by mimicking what he saw other wrestlers doing.

By the end of that school year, he was winning matches and speaking basic English. Sandoval beat Rancho’s Navarro in the NCS final last week, and has more wins than any other Greyhound this year.

“He’s incredibly strong,” Weidemier said. “He figured out two or three moves and he does ’em to death.”

Chavez is a good veteran wrestler, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at him. As a heavyweight, he’s frequently going up against guys who are 6-foot-3, 270 pounds. Chavez stands 5-10 and wrestled last week at 228, and his physique will never be mistaken for Vernon Davis’. But he is deceptively athletic, even more so after improving his conditioning and dropping 20 pounds this year.

“It’s kind of funny,” Weidemier said. “You look at him. He’s not very big, not imposing physically. And he’s a jovial kid, always smiling. I think a lot of people simply do not take him seriously.”

After the match, they usually do.

Of all the Healdsburg wrestlers, Hendrickson figured to be the favorite. He was an NCS champion a year ago, medaling at state at 135 pounds (the top eight medal; Hendrickson finished seventh), and a Sonoma County League champ again for the third time this year, again at 135. He’s a tireless wrestler and a stellar athlete who was also an all-SCL linebacker in football. But he landed hard in a quarterfinal match last week and strained his shoulder.

Hendrickson won that match, and the next. Weidemier wanted him to pull out of the final, but the wrestler talked him into it.

“I actually trust Adam enough well enough to make that decision,” Weidemier said.

“He knew what was at stake. I’m so confident in his wrestling knowledge, and his ability. He understands the sport well enough that he’s capable of putting minimum stress on that joint.”

Hendrickson gutted it out through obvious pain and scored another decision, 3-1 over Liberty’s Nico Serrano.

He has no ligament damage or muscle tear, but it is a pretty serious strain. It’s hard to imagine Hendrickson will be at 100 percent in Bakersfield.

In fact, none of the four are favored to become the first Healdsburg wrestler to win a state title since Andrew Rogers in 2006. Then again, you can’t count them out. These Hounds seem to perform best as underdogs.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.