Padecky: Wrestling at state with 'heart and soul'

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PENNGROVE

The words come out of his mouth, so simple, so unadorned, that they can’t be true, they just can’t. Not after everything that’s going on with his dad and his illness, his unprecedented rocket ride to state and what he could do for his high school that has never been done before. His emotions should be all over the map. He’s just 17, for gosh sakes, a teenager, still a kid by most definitions, and yet here is Tanner Berncich, calm as still water, as if he is living his life in a recliner, watching with great interest as his world passes by.

“It’s hard to get me upset,” said the Petaluma High School senior.
Lord knows, life has tried.

Berncich will be in Bakersfield this weekend, wrestling as a 197-pounder in the CIF state meet. To compete in a California championship in any high school sport, it’s a seminal moment. It has cachet, that 20 years from now, even if Berncich is applying for a job as an accountant for a livestock company in Nebraska, he could list on his resume “Competed for a California state championship” and not have to apologize for it.

And that Berncich made it to state in 2012 for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which to make his father proud, well, that becomes significant once they find out his dad, Torey, couldn’t be there. Torey will be at home Penngrove. Torey, a licensed general contractor, doesn’t leave his home these days.

On Jan. 11, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, cancer of the lymph glands. He began chemotherapy a week ago. It has left him fatigued, sleepless. It left him unable to attend his son’s North Coast Section competition last weekend in Fremont as it will for this weekend’s state tournament in Bakersfield.

“It almost seems like an injustice,” said Torey, a big, barrel-chested man at 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, “for him to think about this while he’s down there. I feel like I am letting my son down.”

Those words sat heavy in the air Tuesday night as Torey stopped talking to compose himself. Torey, 48, had wrestled in high school back in Missouri. He loved the sport and did his best to teach it to his two sons, Tanner and his old brother, Dalton, 20, now an SRJC wrestler who finished third at NCS in 2010 in the 173-pound weight class. Yes, Torey is invested in his kids. A lot.

“It’s pretty heart-breaking,” Torey said. “Everything seems like a blur these last two weeks. It’s all so relatively new. It’s too far out of my comfort zone to go.”

Just like a wrestler reacting fast on the mat, so too the family has been forced to think fast on its feet. Berncich’s mother, Roxanne Abruzzo-Backman, will be in Bakersfield streaming live video back to Torey in Penngrove. Immediately at the end of each match, just as it was in NCS, Berncich will get on the cell to his father. They will discuss the match.

“Tanner is so well-prepared,” Torey said, “that you could put him on a bus all by himself to Bakersfield and he would do fine. He’ll man up. His character, that’s what makes me so comfortable.”

“Character,” that’s a word used frequently when Tanner’s name comes up. He is 17 going on 47; at his core, a certitude exists. Panic is not necessary. He keeps his head while others might want to lose theirs. As we are sitting in his dad’s living room, I ask Tanner as uncomfortable question as I ever would hope to ask a teenager.

“When you hear your dad talking like this, what do you think to yourself?”
“He may not be there in person,” said the 6-foot-1 Berncich, “but he’s still with me in heart and soul.”

Sure, Tanner admitted, he felt a bit uneasy when his dad told him of the cancer. But the docs at Stanford and elsewhere project a 90 percent chance for remission.

“We’re looking at being cured in the next five months,” Torey said. “This cancer is temporary.”
When Tanner heard those numbers, he settled down.

“I don’t stress out,” he said. “I take things one step at a time.”

So when Berncich finished fourth at the SCL meet, he didn’t stress. He was stunned. He was 6-0 in the SCL during the season, finished the regular season at 17-1, yet went 1-2 at the league meet, and the one victory was a forfeit. And the two losses were to wrestlers Berncich had pinned during the season. Rich Carnation, the Windsor wrestling coach, was puzzled. At the time, he didn’t know about Torey’s illness.

“During the season Tanner was dominant in his weight class,” Carnation said. “Maybe he just had a bad tournament. I didn’t know. But I did know Tanner was by far the most deserving candidate to petition to go to the NCS meet.”

Denny Plyler, Petaluma’s coach, filed the Berncich petition right after the last SCL match on Feb. 18. It was received warmly and enthusiastically by Carnation, the SCL representative on the NCS wrestling management committee. Carnation’s presentation was impressive. Less than 24 hours after his SCL defeat, Berncich received an at-large berth in NCS. In the NCS tournament, both Carnation and Plyler were wide-eyed at what they saw. The unseeded Berncich went 5-1, making it all the way to the finals, which were held last weekend in Fremont.

“In all my years doing this,” Carnation said, “I have not known of a wrestler who was an at-large entry making it to the NCS finals. I mean, Holy Smokes!"

“I didn’t know then,” Plyler said, “but he was on a mission. He’s got a fire underneath him.”
Yes, it appeared clear to Carnation and Plyler that Berncich had a little more juice in his tank. After all, it was just a week before the SCL that Torey told Tanner he has cancer.
“I don’t know if I made that correlation,” Torey said, “but if he did, my hat’s off to him.”
Berncich said it wasn’t his dad that affected his performance as much as feeling “too comfortable” with the competition

“I was kinda thinking I had beaten all these guys during the season,” Berncich said. “I played it more safe. Losing my first match took me off guard. I wasn’t all there.”

If Tanner was “with” his father, having just found out a week earlier about the cancer, it would be more than understandable. It would be logical.

“All I know is,” said Joel Backman, Roxanne’s husband, “that in NCS, Tanner couldn’t get to the phone fast enough after a match to talk to his dad.”

Tanner Berncich, whether he realizes it or not, is wrestling for a lot of people. There’s Petaluma High itself, which has never had a wrestler medal at state. There’s people like Carnation, who root for him just because of who he is — “He’s got this big ol’ smile on his face walking around during meets.” And then of course there’s his dad, who still looks like he could bench-press a Buick.

“I read somewhere that 195,000 kids wrestle in California but only one-half of one percent make it to state,” Torey Berncich said. “To have just one son make it to state (Dalton was 2-2 in 2010) is wonderful. But to have two, well …”

Yes, there is a lot to be thankful for.

“I try to see the best in everything,” Tanner Berncich said.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com