State wrestling: Cougars got up off the mat

SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat Rancho Cotate wrestlers Joey Clay, in white, and Brian Guerrero practice for the state wrestling tournament to be held in Bakersfield.

SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat
Rancho Cotate wrestlers Joey Clay, in white, and Brian Guerrero practice for the state wrestling tournament to be held in Bakersfield.

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Before practice this week in Rancho Cotate’s secondary gym, Joey Clay was explaining the lessons he has learned from wrestling.

“It teaches you discipline, mental toughness, all characteristics you can use in life,” said Clay, a senior who currently wrestles at 152 pounds. “Like life can knock you down and put you to your back. You just have to find a way up.”

Clay and his teammates were forced to put that concept into practice this year when their coach, Ryan Lunsford, abruptly resigned in late January. It was a difficult moment. But thanks to their own resolve — and to the dedication of their fathers — Clay and 113-pound junior Brian Guerrero not only weathered the transition, they thrived in it.

Both are competing today and tomorrow at the CIF Boys Wrestling State Championships in Bakersfield, which brings together the best high school wrestlers in California. Guerrero has a first-round match against Marco Velasquez of Foothill Bakersfield; Clay gets a first-round bye, then goes against Blayne Briceno of Crespi.

They are not alone among Redwood Empire wrestlers. Joining Clay and Guerrero in Bakersfield will be five Windsor athletes — Perez Perez (at 106 pounds), Logan Fore (126), Seth Trunick (132), Trevor Silva (138) and Oscar Rios (195) — plus Upper Lake’s Travis Coleman (152), Healdsburg’s Dominic Merlo (162), Fort Bragg’s Jacob Clark (182), El Molino’s Taryn Christiansen (182) and Sonoma Valley’s Aidan Lacy (220).

All of them are deserving, but few had a tougher road this year than the two Rancho Cotate kids.

Lunsford had inherited the program from his father, Ron, who spent nearly 30 years at the school and led the Cougars to 12 league titles before retiring at the end of the 2009-2010 season. Ryan had some success, too, but he walked away right before North Bay League matches started. Rancho Cotate athletic director Henry Sarlatte would say only that Lunsford resigned for “personal issues.”

“He’s a great guy,” Clay said of Lunsford. “He had stuff he needed to take care of. I don’t know what it was exactly, but he had to do what he had to do, and I understand that. Was I disappointed with when he left? Yeah, that kind of sucks. But you know what? We have other great coaches in the room that step up.”

Foremost was James Clay, Joey’s dad. Like Ryan Lunsford, James Clay was a standout Rancho wrestler in his day. He qualified for state three times, in 1984, 1985 and 1986, alternating between 145 and 155 pounds.

Clay was in his fourth year of assisting at Rancho Cotate, and knew the wrestlers well. He had the technical knowledge to help them, but did he have the time? Clay is chief engineer at Millennium Tower, the 60-story, high-end condo complex south of Market Street in San Francisco. He has a lot going on, including a commute that prevents him from getting to Rancho for practices until 4:30 p.m.

The kids needed guidance, so Clay accepted the interim job. And Brian Guerrero’s father, Mike, became the full-time assistant.

Unlike James Clay, Mike Guerrero did not have a wrestling background before his son got involved in the sport.

The coaching transition was not easy for everyone.

“We just changed up practices, went back to how I practiced back in the ’80s,” Clay said. “At first I told ’em, ‘This is gonna be a lot harder for you. And I don’t know that you’re all gonna like it, but this is the way I know how to coach.’

“And they actually loved it. And the parents loved it, too, because the kids were going home tired and just falling right to sleep.”

Clay drilled the Cougars longer, and harder, than they had been accustomed to. Some faded. The ones who accepted the challenge were doing their best wrestling by the end of the season. Clay has not talked to Sarlatte about retaining the job permanently, but has begun to consider applying for it.

First he has to get his self-made wrestling stars through the biggest tournament of their lives.

Clay had wrestled at 130 pounds as a sophomore, and he was OK, but not great. So he embarked on a mighty weight training program, consulting with his father and an uncle, and doing his own research on the subject. He was competing at 152 as a junior, and has remained a committed lifter. That was typical of the way Clay attacks projects.

“Joe adds a little brute force, with a gas tank basically that nobody can keep up with,” James Clay said. “He just keeps going. That’s how Joe trains for the sport.”

Before this year, Joey Clay had been limited by medical issues. As a sophomore, he came down with a case of MRSA, a virulent form of staph that is not uncommon on the wrestling mat. Last year he had water under his kneecap. He has managed to stay healthy as a senior.

Like Joey Clay, Brian Guerrero fell in love with wrestling as a sixth-grader, working with local coach Jason Kolden at the middle school. Since then, Guerrero has worked tirelessly at his craft, traveling to frequent club tournaments around the Bay Area and beyond. Clay has suitable practice partners at Rancho in 160-pounder Ty Brantley and 147-pounder Damon Milner, but Guerrero really does not. He drove to Windsor twice this week to wrestle against Perez and Fore.

“Brian is very, very technical,” James Clay said. “You think you got him, and you don’t have him. You think, ‘Hey, I got the advantage here,’ and next thing you know he’s taking you down.”

Part of the strategy this year has been less wrestling for the Rancho Cotate athletes. Last year Guerrero and Clay logged more than 40 matches on their way to the North Coast Section championships. James Clay remembered going to NCS with 26 matches. Worried that his wrestlers would be beat up by the end of the season, Clay backed them out of a few tournaments. Joey Clay is currently at 38 matches and Guerrero, who sat out part of the season with a knee injury, is at 28.

Guerrero’s knee is still a little sore, but both wrestlers are pretty fired up for the opportunity to compete at state, their goal from the outset of this tumultuous season.

They’ve got new duds for the event, too. CIF rules state that all teammates must wear matching warm-up outfits at the championships. Rancho Cotate didn’t have any, so James Clay went out and outfitted his Bakersfield-bound boys.

“I have an idea of what it’s going to be like,” Guerrero said. “I know it’s going to be very, very, very hard, because there’s so many good kids there from all over the state. But (Coach Clay) has also told me it’s a super-fun experience. And I know I’m ready for it.”

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

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