By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Upper Lake tied for eighth place at the North Coast Section wrestling championships last year. That wasn’t eighth place among small schools. It was eighth place overall.
Upper Lake, a school with an enrollment of about 350 students, ranked higher than Rancho Cotate, Ukiah, Maria Carrillo and dozens of other programs with larger populations and strong wrestling backgrounds.
The reaction of Cougars coach Ron Campos? Call it mild disappointment.
“I placed eighth in Kelseyville my last year,” said Campos, who was hired at Upper Lake seven years ago. “I wanted to beat that — and we did beat it, but we were penalized a point for someone saying a bad word.”
The Cougars’ goals for the NCS this year: respectful conversation, tough wrestling and a top-five finish.
They just may have the wrestlers to do it. The Redwood Empire is expected to send 141 boys to Newark High this weekend for the section meet, starting Friday, and some of the best are from Upper Lake.
Among the Cougars, Travis Coleman is seeded second at 152 pounds, Joe Valdez is seeded third at 220 and Ward Beecher is fourth at 145.
Certainly, they are not alone among Empire contenders. Windsor, the dominant large-school program, has a half-dozen top-four seeds, including No. 1 Perez Perez (106 pounds) and No. 2 Seth Trunick (132). El Molino’s Taryn Christiansen is the top seed at 182 pounds, and Sonoma Valley’s Aiden Lacy is second at 220.
What Upper Lake is doing in the quiet reaches of Lake County, however, bears notice. The Cougars have won five consecutive Coastal Mountain Conference titles and five straight NCS Division 3 dual team championships. They are, in fact, undefeated in dual meets over the past five years, going 50-0. In other words, seniors like Coleman, Beecher and Valdez have never lost a dual meet.
Upper Lake is a true small-school dynasty, a far cry from where Campos found the program when he arrived.
“We had three wrestlers,” the coach reflected. “It was just a very sad program. I had come from Kelseyville, and we’d had some success there. Upper Lake needed some help.”
Campos brought help in the form of tough love. His practices are notoriously strenuous, and the wrestling team’s only break on the calendar comes during football season.
“He comes from back in the old days of wrestling, where you just go out and wrestle,” Coleman said. “If you have a bloody nose, stick a tissue in there.”
Campos doesn’t believe in running. His wrestlers stretch at the start of practice, then go right into take-downs. Every one-hour practice ends with three six-minute matches for each kid, followed by 125 sit-ups and 125 push-ups.
The Cougars don’t take water breaks. When you wrestle for Upper Lake, you don’t stop moving.
“If I see a kid locking up, I’ll tell him, ‘You’re stalling,’” Campos said. “We’re what we call touch-and-go. I’m in their face all the time. If you’ve thought about it, you’re too late.”
Rather than chasing away athletes with his demanding standards, Campos has attracted them at Upper Lake. There, unlike most schools, kids tend to give up other sports to wrestle.
By now, Upper Lake has a great feeder program, Campos working with local kids from the time they’re in sixth grade. That’s where he found young wrestlers like Coleman.
“I was watching, and he was losing a match in sixth grade like 13-0,” Campos said. “But he never gave up, and he came back and pinned the guy. I said, ‘I want that kid.’”
Six years later, Coleman, Valdez and Beecher lead a contingent of nine Cougars going to Newark. It’s not like they haven’t been there before. This is the fourth trip to NCS for Coleman and Beecher, the third for Valdez.
“As a freshman, you might not be expecting the toughness of all the kids,” Beecher said. “Now I’m expecting what’s out there.”
Despite Upper Lake’s unbroken success, the school hasn’t sent a wrestler to the CIF state championships since 2010. (The top three section finishers at each weight qualify for the state meet in Bakersfield.) This year’s crop of Cougars is aiming to end that drought.
“I’m really excited,” Valdez said. “It’s been my dream for a while. I’ve been working hard so that I can say I competed at the state level. I was close last year, but I knew I wasn’t done yet. This year is my year.”
Valdez might have been speaking for the entire Upper Lake squad.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.