Celebrating Over 50 Years of History, Family Style
It has been thirty-seven years since I first set foot on a Livermore Cowboys’ wrestling mat. I recall it being a very cold and rainy November day outside; the winter months were upon us. My freshman season of football had just ended, and I was headed to the main gym to try out for the freshman basketball team. Yes, basketball! Despite wrestling for two years in middle school and liking it, I figured I would go out for the more popular sport on campus. If not for a group of my fellow football teammates intercepting me in the locker room, I wouldn’t be writing this article today.
Without much convincing, they inspired me to join them at the first day of wrestling practice. My teammate had encouragingly said, “my older brother told me that they had a state champion last year and have won many championships…besides, the wrestling team is better than the basketball team right now.” As I reflect on my Cowboys’ wrestling experience, I am honored to be a part of a fifty plus year tradition at Livermore High School. Since its early roots in 1963, the Cowboys’ program has produced many championship teams, great individuals, awesome coaches and mentors, but most of all a family atmosphere that is strong as steel with many siblings and family members contributing to its long history. I will always bleed “Green and Gold” and give back to what has been a life changing experience for me, the Cowboys’ wrestling experience. Now sit back, relax and enjoy the story.
The year was 1963, perhaps one of the most memorable years in the history of the United States. This was the beginning of Beatlemania, Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and during the latter part of the year, the nation reached a dark time in its history with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During this same period of time, in a small farming community in the San Francisco Bay Area, a group of students approached the Livermore High School’s administration about starting a wrestling program.
According to past coach Don Muentz, “many of the other schools outside the valley had wrestling teams and I approached, then principal, Ed Runstrom about chances of having wrestling at Livermore.” Luckily, he gave the okay and the program was started. Ironically, in the beginning, many of the kids thought that they were going to wrestle in a ring with ropes around it, but in only a few tender years of team building, the newly established Livermore program won the inaugural East Bay Athletic League (EBAL) Championships in 1965 with a record ten individual champions. Since those early years, the Cowboys have won a total of eighteen EBAL dual meet titles, as well as the team tournament championships. To date, the most decorated teams to ever compete for Livermore High School was during the 1989 and 1992 seasons.
The first and only 4x EBAL Champion, Bryan Vashus, and CIF State medalist and Multiple Greco-Roman All-American, Clark Conover, led the 1989 team. That season, the Cowboys earned a 17-0 dual meet record, won the EBAL team title and placed a strong runner-up finish at the North Coast Section (NCS) with state power Ukiah taking first. Although Livermore took second it was the highest finish at NCS in the school’s history. The 1992 team excelled even further. Going undefeated that season, the Cowboys didn’t have a close match all year. Incredibly, the Cowboys’ second team (JV) had beaten the second place Amador Valley in the league varsity dual. Led by CIF State medalists Scott Page and Pete Matheson, the Cowboys’ contingent easily won the EBAL tournament team title with six individual champions, placed runner-up in the NCS team standings with eight medalists, and five went on to compete at the prestigious CIF State Championships (NCS’s James Logan was a state power at the time). Among the most memorable underdog stories that season was freshman Tim Rankin entering the EBAL Championships unseeded, and coming from behind in the waning seconds of the third period to register a pin over the No. 1 seed in his first-round match of the competition. Rankin then went on to pin his way to an individual title.
As we continue our look back at our fifty plus year history, the Cowboys have produced many notable wrestlers that have gone on to earn multiple EBAL, NCS, and CIF State accolades. For starters, let’s begin with the lengthy list of “first-timers.” As noted prior, the first EBAL Championship team in 1965 produced a record ten individual EBAL Champions with the Turner Brothers, Dale and Gary, being the first set of brothers to earn titles the same season.
The following season, Gary Turner and Tim Vargas became the first Cowboys to become two-time EBAL Champions and in 1967 each added another title to become the first three-timers. Twenty-two years later, Bryan Vashus became the first and only four-time EBAL Champion during the memorable 1989 season. Climbing to the next rung at the section level, Gary Turner added another “First” to his name by becoming the first to earn an NCS title in 1967, as well as being the first two-time medalist. Just over a decade later, NCS Champion Naish Piazza became the first to earn three NCS Medals (1976-’78), as well as the first in 1977 to qualify to the CIF State Championships since the inaugural state tournament in 1973 (to date, Livermore has not produced a 4x NCS medalist). During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Tyler Rardon became the first and only Livermore wrestler to earn two NCS Crowns (Coached by his uncle Brad Vadnais). Prior to the first CIF State Championships, the state was divided into the Northern and Southern California Invitational meets (considered the state tournaments back in those days). Adding to his already impressive resume, Gary Turner was also the first and only Cowboys’ wrestler to earn a medal (3rd place) at the Northern California Invitational in 1967. Garen McDonald became the first to earn a CIF State Championship title in 1980, a feat that has yet to be duplicated. More recently, Mya Waechtler became the first Cowboys’ wrestler to earn a medal at the 2017 North Coast Section Championships in the Girls division.
In addition to the “First-timers” described above, the Cowboys’ program has produced a large contingent of exceptionally talented wrestlers, many going on to perform well at the national and collegiate levels. For starters, Clark Conover (Class of ’90), Scott Page (Class of ’92), Pete Matheson (Class of ’92), Marc Kavanagh (Class of ’93) and Stephen De La Cruz (Class of ’08), each dominated their respective competitions at the local and section levels and capped off their prep careers with a hard-earned medal at the CIF State Championships. At the collegiate level, Conover, Matheson, De La Cruz, and Kavanagh each earned All-American honors while attending Chabot College. In addition, Frisbee Goodall (Class of ’85), Derek Bowerman (Class of ’96), Richard Ybarra (Class of ’03) and Nico Lang (Class of ’13) each added to their EBAL Championships by adding an NCS title to their resumes.
The list is small, but in addition to Cowboys’ Stars Naish Piazza, Clark Conover, and Bryan Vashus, other members of the three-time NCS medalist club include Joey Silva (Class of ’99), Zach Philbrick (Class of ’99), Nexi Delgado (Class of ’04), and Alec Fraser (Class of ’10). Other exceptionally talented wrestlers’ worth noting include Richard Naval (EBAL Champ, 2x NCS Placer), Chris Ornellas (2x EBAL Champ, NCS Placer), and Jack Villagomez (2x EBAL Champ, 2x NCS Placer).
To date, Livermore High School has had thirteen Head Coaches lead the Cowboys’ program since its creation in 1963. All have played an integral role in the long success of the program. The first being James Comella and assistant Don Muentz (1963-’64) paving the foundation of the program, followed by Gene Larigan (1964-’66), winning the school’s first EBAL team title in 1965. During the 1966-’67 season, Bob Bronzan took the helm and elevated the Cowboys’ program to new heights in the EBAL and abroad, winning team titles in 1967, 1969, and 1970. Assistant Jack Lopez (1970-’76) then took over the head position the following season when Bronzan was promoted to an administrative position at the school (at the time, Administrators were not allowed to be in a head coaching position). Bronzan remained an assistant to Lopez for several years, whereas, the Cowboys added additional EBAL Team titles in 1971, 1972 and a tournament title in 1974. For a short stint, Ed King (1976-’79) took the helm and won an EBAL title during the 1977 season. The next two Head Coaches, Kevin Gunn (1979-’81) and wrestling alumni Don Baird (1982) each fielded competitive teams; whereas, Coach Gunn had the honor to coach the school’s only CIF State Champion in 1980. During the 1982-’83 season, longtime teacher, coach and administrator, Bob Bronzan took on the Head Coaching position for one season and in short order elevated the program to new heights by challenging Granada and San Ramon Valley for the EBAL title.
The following season (my senior year), the Coach Steve Page era began. The longest tenured coach in the school’s history (1983-2004), Page took the Livermore program to an entirely new level. Winning ten EBAL Championships and placing in the top 5 at the NCS several times, Page produced numerous EBAL, NCS, and State medalists, as well as several wrestlers earning All-Americans honors at the Freestyle and Greco-Roman nationals. Upon Page’s retirement from coaching in 2004, former Cowboys’ star Marc Kavanagh (2004-’08) took over the program, producing several top-level teams and individuals at the EBAL, NCS, and State levels with Stephen De La Cruz earning a state medal in 2008 during the last year of his Head Coaching tenure. From the beginning of the 2008-’09 season through 2013, the Head Coaching positions were held by 3x NCS medalist Zach Philbrick (2008-’10) and Brad Vadnais (2010-’13), each producing several competitive teams and individuals. Head Coach since 2013, Livermore alumni Herb Guidry enters the 2017-’18 with ambitions to take Livermore back to competitive levels at the league and section levels. With an NCS Dual meet championship under his belt in 2014, Guidry has goals to challenge for the EBAL team title this year (last EBAL team title was won in 2003) and bring home another championship banner at the NCS duals.
The list is very long, but a few brother combos that I had the privilege to coach during my tenure at Livermore were the Matheson brothers (Pete and Sammy), Philbrick brothers (Kermit and Zach), Page brothers (Scott and Shane), Chavira brothers (Anthony, Daniel, and Elias), Le brothers (Minh Nhat, Noel, and Ferrier), Diaz brothers (Richard and Jesus), Iacono brothers (Joe and John), and Kavanagh brothers (Marc, Adam, and Donny). The remarkable thing about having brothers compete together was each pushed one another to work harder and excel to the next level. I recall Coach Page always emphasizing that we were a wrestling family and to help one another both on and off the mat. It indeed built a lot of strong bonds within our program, a bond that remains strong today. The support received by wrestlers extends beyond the mat to family, friends, and notably the stat girls with whom we wouldn’t have a lot of this historical data to look back at.
For a majority of the program’s history, off-season wrestling has played a significant role in the continuous improvement of its wrestlers excelling at the sectional, state and national levels. It also provides a means to train the next generations at the elementary and middle school levels. During Coach Page’s tenure, the Tri-Valley Wrestling Club produced several Freestyle and Greco-Roman State Champions and medalists, as well as Cowboys’ Andy Koponen, Clark Conover, and Scott Page earning All-American honors. Today, several Livermore wrestlers continue their off-season competition training with area clubs, such as the Tri-Valley Elite.
In closing, I am honored to state that the Livermore High School wrestling program has had a strong and successful history to this point and the future looks bright. Many great individuals, teams, and leaders have been produced as a result. Not only were we fortunate to have great coaches, many have been life-long mentors to us.
I recall back in 1983 when Coach Bob Bronzan motivated every one of our team members to believe that as individuals we each had a role for the greater good of the team. And, during my senior year in 1983- ‘84, Coach Steve Page’s first words to our team on day 1 remain etched in my psyche, “to be a champion, you must practice the 3Ds…Dedication, Desire, and Determination.” I have always wanted to give back to this program what it gave me, which is a solid foundation in life. Putting together this project is my gift back and a celebration of something special. The process to compile all of the historical statistics dating back to the beginning was long, but a labor of love. I could not have done it without the extensive assistance from my brother and TCW Co-Editor, Aaron Fontes. Together, we completed a project long discussed, but not pursued until mid-last year. Many siblings, specifically brothers have been an integral part of the Cowboys’ tradition thus far and will do so in the future years to come. I have had the opportunity to personally meet and get to know several of the wrestlers on this year’s team, including returning NCS placers Adam Lebish and Mya Waechtler, and have to say that I am energized by the enthusiasm and potential with this group. They are the future and next chapter in the long and successful Livermore Cowboys’ tradition, more importantly, a Family tradition that dates back five decades. Cowboys Pride Forever!!!
See Al’s complete recount and photo-historical guide of Livermore wrestling history including coaching interviews, (Coach Herb Guidry, Coach Marc Kavanagh, Coach Michael Visaya), CIF medalists, qualifiers and champions, All-Americans and Hall-of-Famers.