NCS wrestling tournament: Archbishop Hanna senior Alex Garcia eyes victory

Alex Garcia, 17, right, a wrestler from Archbishop Hanna High School, practices with Dalton Elster, 17, from Sonoma Valley High School, on Wednesday, Feb.25, 2015. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Alex Garcia, 17, right, a wrestler from Archbishop Hanna High School, practices with Dalton Elster, 17, from Sonoma Valley High School, on Wednesday, Feb.25, 2015. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

He’s still using the wrestling mat he bought when he started the program 20 years ago, but generally, coach Dave Montano says, the facilities at Archbishop Hanna High School are great. He and his athletes get ample support from the administration, too.

Still, being a small program presents its challenges. With no one on the team really able to test him, senior Alex Garcia has spent most of the season practicing against three adults — Montano, assistant coach Nick Evanson and volunteer Seth Thornton, a 190-pounder who works at Whole Foods.

This can be a hardship — especially for the adults.

“Last week Alex is wrestling Nick,” Montano said. “I’m coaching Alex, and I’m like, ‘Arch! Put your hips into it!’ All of a sudden Nick starts yelling. His rib pops out. And Nick’s tough, man. He’s an ex-Marine. You could see the thing sticking out.”

Evanson is feeling much better. And Garcia, after feeling “devastated” (Montano’s term) over the injury, is focused again, ready to attack the North Coast Section boys wrestling championships, which take place Friday and Saturday at James Logan High in Union City.

Garcia is the No. 1 seed at 132 pounds, another milestone for a kid who has carefully plotted his life path over the past five years and worked tirelessly to stay on course.

Hanna Boys Center, as its website says, is a 160-acre “haven of hope for troubled boys and their families.” But the 100-plus boys who live there defy categorization. Some have been arrested multiple times or have slipped into addiction. Others haven’t transgressed much at all; they come from broken homes or just don’t have a lot of family support. The only thing they all have in common is a decision to relinquish many typical teenage freedoms for the chance to start again.

Few of them reached this decision as pragmatically as Alex Garcia.

Garcia, who moved from Eureka to Santa Rosa when he was 7, got good marks in middle school. But they tailed off a bit in eighth grade. He had a loving and hard-working mother who managed to scrape together money for a house, but it wasn’t in the best neighborhood. Some of Garcia’s friends were messing up. His younger sister had dyslexia, and he felt pressure to take care of her, sometimes to the detriment of his own studies.

Garcia had dreams of a college education, and he wasn’t sure he could get there if he didn’t make a change. So he applied to live at Hanna, a residential facility near Sonoma that offers strict oversight and limited opportunities to leave campus.

“I just felt it would be a good fit — and it really was, because I wouldn’t have been as successful as I am today if I wouldn’t have come,” Garcia said Wednesday, taking a break from a dual practice with wrestlers from Sonoma Valley High.

Garcia currently has a 4.13 GPA — he’s hoping to bump it up in his final semester — at Archbishop Hanna, has already been accepted to USF, St. Mary’s and Chico State (he’s waiting to hear from other schools), and is a strong candidate to be his class valedictorian in June. Garcia wants to enter a nursing program.

First, though, he’s got some wrestling to do. And he’s not alone. Hanna teammate Tyler Smith, a 138-pound freshman, also will be competing in Union City.

For Garcia, the sport didn’t always come as naturally as the schoolwork. He had never wrestled before he walked into one of Montano’s open-mat sessions as a freshman. In fact, he hadn’t really done much at all athletically.

“I was a potato bug,” Garcia said.

Hanna didn’t even have CIF-sanctioned wrestling at that time. Montano had coached there for more than 15 years, but he ran an offseason “freestyle” program, a slightly different version of the sport that is under the auspices of USA Wrestling.

In the fall of 2011, a few of Montano’s wrestlers (including Garcia, then a freshman) approached him with a proposal. They wanted to go head to head against other schools. Montano filed applications, paid a fee and the Hawks were assigned to the Coastal Mountain Conference.

Not surprisingly, Garcia got thrown around pretty good at the outset. But Montano saw something in the kid he thought he could nurture.

“He came down to open mat, and you could tell he didn’t like to get taken down,” said Montano, a top wrestler at Piner and Santa Rosa JC in his younger days. “I just saw a little bit of a will in him.”

His coaches describe Garcia with words like “humble” and “appreciative” and “polite.” He smiles a lot, especially now that he got his braces off. But he applied the same ferocity to wrestling that he did to academics, with similar results.

Montano said Garcia hasn’t missed a practice this year. As a Status 1 resident at Hanna, Garcia is allowed to go home for two weekends each month; during wrestling season, he voluntarily forfeits those visits.

“It usually takes having a pretty good team and having a coach to push you hard,” Evanson said. “With Alex, we push, but he found his own time to go work out, to go to camps. Summer is the time these kids get to go home, and he’s raising money to go to camps instead. That’s all him.”

Not that Garcia has done it in a vacuum. Montano and Evanson have mentored him closely, and even opposing coaches like Maria Carrillo’s Tim Bruce and Sonoma Valley’s Deets Winslow, who died last summer in a tragic boating accident, jumped in to drive Garcia to distant tournaments. Montano calls Garcia’s mother, Guadalupe, a “super-mom” who is there for moral support.

Yet few kids are as motivated or self-sufficient as Garcia, who lobbied hard for the privilege of taking two AP classes per semester at Sonoma Valley.

Hanna’s wrestling program remains a work in progress. This year only six kids stuck with the team. One problem is continuity. Most students attend Hanna just long enough to get their feet back under them.

“I’m kind of like a farm club for schools in the county,” Montano said. “I get guys going for a year and then they return to their school.”

But Garcia has stayed all four years, and he has flourished. This is his third trip to the NCS championships. Last year he finished seventh at 126 pounds, becoming Hanna’s first section medalist in wrestling.

His first two years, Garcia said, he wrestled defensively and was not much of a shooter. He worked on becoming more of an attacker, developing a nasty double leg takedown. This year he has focused on another former vulnerability — wrestling from the bottom position. Garcia also has gotten a lot stronger.

“During the offseason, that’s all I was doing is working out and wrestling,” he said.

Montano acknowledges all of those talents. But he insists they are not what makes Garcia a top wrestler.

“He has this stubbornness in him,” Montano said. “And he’s got a motor in him.”

Garcia is considered a favorite to advance to the CIF State boys wrestling championships in Bakersfield, but Montano didn’t want to talk about that. The NCS championships are enough to worry about.

“I feel the pressure, definitely,” Garcia admitted. “It’s my senior year, and I have everything going for me. Especially being the No. 1 seed, there’s a lot of pressure, because of high expectations. So I feel like if I don’t make the expectations, I’ll feel like I failed everybody.”

Just a guess: No one else would look at him that way, even if he somehow lost his first two matches. If Alex Garcia is a failure, heaven help the rest of us.

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

Seeded wrestlers from the Redwood Empire in this weekend’s North Coast Section meet:

WINDSOR (8): 106 — Brandon Potts (5); 113 — Auston Wilson (3); 126 — Noah Au-Yeung (3); 138 — Luke Au-Yeung (4); 152 — Dominic DuCharme (1); 160 — Beau Colombini (1); 182 — Joe Valdez (3); 195 — Anthony Spallino (3).

UKIAH (4): 138 — Alan Molina (7); 152 — Joey Gradek (2); 170 — Garrett Chase (6); 285 — Nicolas Iverson (1).

CASA GRANDE (2): 120 — Angelo Arcamo (6); 170 — Josh Black (8).

EL MOLINO (2): 126 — Samuel MacDonell (6); 132 — Anthony Gemini (3).

HEALDSBURG (2): 145 — Joel Anguiano (5); 170 — Jacob Sloma (5).

MARIA CARRILLO (2): 182 — Josh Groesbeck (8); 195 — Montana Pawek (8).

ARCHBISHOP HANNA (1): 132 — Alex Garcia (1).

CARDINAL NEWMAN (1): 145 — Michael Klee (1).

CLEAR LAKE (1): 220 — Julian Lewis (6).

FORT BRAGG (1): 160 — Ricky Cavender (4).

LOWER LAKE (1): 285 — William Isaacs (7).

PETALUMA (1): 145 — Noah Russell (8).

UPPER LAKE (1): 285 — Nick Kranich (6).

WILLITS (1): 145 — Justin Thom (6).