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When the postseason wrestling mats roll out, that’s when Vacaville turns it up. By JIM McCUE | Contributor   Much like the raised stage...

When the postseason wrestling mats roll out, that’s when Vacaville turns it up.

By JIM McCUE | Contributor


Much like the raised stage with a spotlight shining bright on a single mat at the center of Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield, the Vacaville Bulldogs are a fixture at the California Interscholastic Federation State Wrestling Championships. 

The Vacaville program has earned a reputation as a program that can be counted on to bring lots of wrestlers, fans, and expectations to the state meet every year.

“I love to walk into (Athletic Director Mike Papadopoulos’) office and tell ‘Pop’ that we’re going to make him spend some money,” Vacaville co-coach Adam Wight said of the program’s consistent need for transportation and numerous hotel rooms to house the school’s state qualifiers in Bakersfield. 

“But it’s money the athletic department does not mind spending because it means we are doing well and representing the school and community well.”

This year, the Bulldogs, ranked No. 7 in the state by Cal Grappler, qualified nine wrestlers for the state meet — tied for the second most qualifiers in the program’s history — including three Sac-Joaquin Section champions. Vacaville dominated the competition at the SJS Masters Championships at Stockton Arena in late February, running away with the team title and earning more tickets to state than any other SJS program in 2012. 

Only the Bulldogs’ 2002 team sent more wrestlers to the state meet (11), but the 2007 squad, which also qualified nine, is the only group to bring home a team state championship.

This year’s squad may not have come with a team title — it finished sixth, missing a Top 5 finish by 2.5 points — but it did still come home with a state champion. 

Johnny Schupp pinned Foothill-Sacramento’s Michael Lowman midway through the second round (2:59) of the heavyweight (285 pounds) final to put himself at the top of the podium inside Bakersfield’s Rabobank Arena.

That Schupp was facing Lowman, a fellow SJS wrestler who took third at Masters, and didn’t end up facing the Vacaville heavyweight, was a bit of surprise. Lowman pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the CIF semifinals when he defeated Clovis sophomore Nick Nevills 4-3. Nevills entered the tournament as the No. 1-ranked heavyweight in the state.

Forced to wait through the finals of the first 13 weight classes, both Lowman and Schupp were at peak anxiety by the time they were matside.

“I was pacing a little bit waiting for the match, but coach Wight settled me down,” Schupp said. “He told me it was just another match and that I just had to be Johnny Schupp out there.”

Lowman selected the bottom start position to open the second round, and Schupp took control and seized the moment, and the state championship.

“I was working on tilting him when I saw his head down,” Schupp recounted. “I knew that I had enough left to get him over and I just got his shoulder to the mat. It’s an awesome feeling to be the best in the entire state. It’s something that I will always remember and will always have.” 

By the time Vacaville wrestlers show up in Bakersfield, any more hardware earned is bonus. The Bulldogs covet CIF banners, but still build their goals around dominating at sections.

Which they had little trouble doing in 2012. 

At the Section Masters Championships, sophomore Gionn Peralta (106 pounds), junior Kasey Klaus (120 pounds), and Schupp each won individual titles and five others finished in the top five. Freshman Anthony Hernandez (113 pounds) scrapped his way to state with a narrow victory over Manteca senior Charlie Alvitre in the seventh-place match.

Vacaville has won eight of the last 11 SJS team titles, including five of the last six. Winning a state championship, as an individual or a team, is significantly harder, especially considering perennial powerhouses from the Central and Southern Sections tend to populate the top three to five spots in the team standings each year. Clovis, Bakersfield, and Poway-San Diego are the most usual suspects.

“It is insanely hard to win a state title, so we believe that our main goal each year should be Section Masters,” Wight said. “We believe that the Masters tournament is something to measure us by, and we believe that the section banner should hang in our gym. We take a lot of pride in our success at Sections.”

Since Wight and co-coach Clint Birch took the program over from Rich Penaluna in 2006, the Bulldogs have captured five SJS team titles, three individual state titles, and the 2007 team state championship. 

Schupp became the tenth Vacaville wrestler in the program’s 50-year history to conquer his weight class at the CIF tournament. Prior to his win, Tyler Johnson (145 pounds) was the last Bulldog to return from Bakersfield with the ultimate hardware. He did so in 2010.

Of the Bulldogs’ three section champs, Schupp held the highest state ranking (No. 2) after the Masters tournament. The senior heavyweight is the team’s leader on the mat and in the wrestling room where Johnny’s “corner” is both feared and revered.

“I am more of a leader by example,” Schupp said. “A lot of guys in the room are afraid of me, but I just tell them that whoever wants to get better can come back into my corner to learn a few things.”

Schupp may be the toughest guy on the team, but the Bulldogs boast plenty of strong, tough grapplers familiar with giving and receiving some physical beatings. 

A handful of wrestlers, including Schupp, juniors Jeramy Sweany, and Chris Lai, have been fixtures for Vacaville football. This year’s group of multi-sport athletes has enjoyed two SJS championships as the Bulldogs defeated Folsom to win the Div. II football title before tacking on the wrestling crown.

While football and wrestling programs do not always coexist peacefully, Vacaville has a unique connection. The wrestling program was started in 1961 by legendary Bulldogs football coach and athletic director Tom Zunino. In recent times, Papadopoulos, who doubles as football head coach and AD, has continued the close relationship.

“Football and wrestling has always been a marriage at Vacaville,” said Wight, who also serves as an assistant football coach under Papadopoulos. “A football coach started the program 50 years ago, ‘Pop’ was a wrestler, and we all just get along. It doesn’t hurt that getting tough in football helps with the toughness of wrestling.”

The players see benefits of the physicality and combative nature of both sports, but also are quick to point out the difficulty of transitioning from the gridiron to the mat.

“The cardio is the toughest part of moving from football to wrestling,” Schupp said. “In football, you have short bursts and then rest between plays where wrestling requires a longer time where you are locked up and working hard against an opponent without a break.”

“It takes about two to three weeks to knock the rust off,” Sweany said. “Having a wrestling background helps with footwork and having fast hands and feet in football, but the cardio is a huge thing. A three-minute round can seem like 10 minutes right after the football season ends.”

With the Bulldogs’ extended run in football, Vacaville’s wrestlers were slower out of hte gate. But coaches and wrestlers agree that the team is peaking at the right time.

“I feel great now,” Schupp said after the Section Masters meet. “I feel like I am getting better and know exactly what I’m doing out on the mat.”

He wasn’t the only one.

Peralta and Sweany both returned from Bakersfield with medals. Peralta reached the semifinals at 106s, but lost a major decision to top-seeded Zahid Valencia of St. John Bosco-Bellflower. Peralta battled back to win the consolation bracket and take third place with an 8-4 victory over Wasco’s Isaiah Hokit. Sweany picked up an eighth-place medal at 195s.

Of the Bulldogs’ nine state qualifiers in 2012, only Schupp and Kai Loechler (145 pounds) will graduate, leaving seven to return for the 2012-13 with state experience, including two medalists. Add to that a tradition of winning and a three-level program that begins attracting wrestlers as early as sixth grade, and the future looks bright for the Bulldogs.

“I watched dual meets and saw guys training when I was younger and I always wanted to be like them,” Sweany said. “It is a program with great tradition. Having a good system like that is the key to consistently bringing lots of wrestlers to the state meet.”

So, it is likely that the torch will be passed from Schupp and Loechler to the younger Bulldogs. They will groom the next generation to get their shot to shine under the spotlight on the raised stage in the center of the arena. 

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