FAIRFIELD — Like most of their classmates, they’ve moved on to have families and careers of their own.
Twenty years ago they did something that had never been done before – and hasn’t been repeated.
As members of the Fairfield High wresting team they won the outright Monticello Empire League championship, the only time in the 37-year history of the MEL that Vacaville has not won at least a piece of the title.
All it required was beating the Bulldogs in a dual meet – something a MEL team hadn’t done in 11 years, a span of 61 matches – and then outpointing the orange and black in the league tournament – something that had been done just once before.
And do it with a team that had finished last in the eight-team MEL just three years before and was made up of wrestlers who mostly took up the sport as freshmen as opposed to in middle school, like most of the Bulldogs.
Somehow, they pulled it off.
“It’s a cliché, but there was just some magic there,” said then Fairfield coach Rocco Cardinale, who now teaches at Oak Ridge High of El Dorado Hills. “I think what those young guys did is brought that confidence with them. . . . We’re talking about guys that wrestled four years, that’s it. In wrestling, that’s a short amount of time, extremely short.”
If the Falcons felt they were at a disadvantage, they didn’t show it. With Cardinale in his third year, the program was on the upswing. Dan Corpstein became the Falcons’ first state placer in nearly 20 years by taking fifth at 171 pounds in 1991 and was third at 189 the following year.
Corpstein also won back-to-back Sac-Joaquin Section titles and Mike Collier took the section crown at 125 in 1993. That year Fairfield finished second in the MEL dual meet season – it’s only loss was to Vacaville – and took third in the league tournament.
Despite losing Collier, who’s currently the head coach at Folsom High, the Falcons were thinking the unthinkable for the 1993-94 season: Dethroning Vacaville.
“All I ever heard since starting up as a freshman was how good Vacaville was and that no one ever came close to beating them,” said Sean Kuehl, who’s now a welder and pipefitter in the Las Vegas area, but was the Falcons’ senior 160-pound standout that season. “Besides the blood, sweat and tears, we owe a lot to coach and the older guys who took us under their wings.”
Ken McKinney, who with his wife runs a church in San Francisco and wrestled at 135 pounds for the Falcons, said Cardinale put down the foundation early.
“He (Cardinale) said, ‘If you guys will commit to wrestling on and off season, by your senior year you’ll beat Vacaville,’” McKinney said. “He said that my sophomore year. For some reason, we believed it, we committed to it. We joined him in offseason wrestling.”
For all his motivation, which included a video by wrestling legend Dan Gable – “He made us watch once a week,” Kuehl said with a laugh – Cardinale said the push came from the wrestlers themselves.
“If you believe in something as much as they did, anything can happen,” the coach said. “There was some talent there, physical talent. They were strong kids – ‘Forward! Go! Go! Go!’ – they meant business. I love thinking about those guys, they were so unique in who they were.”
“We all fed off each other,” Kuehl said. “Our team was filled with extremely dedicated, hard workers, always trying to outwrestle, outlift, and one-up each other. We were a close knit group of guys that enjoyed every minute of it.”
They needed to be to have a chance against Vacaville. In the first 17 years of the MEL, the Bulldogs had gone 99-2 in league dual meets, the losses coming in 1982 and 1983 to Napa, seasons in which they came back to win the league tournament and split the championship with the Indians.
Wood won the 1992 MEL tournament after falling to Vacaville during the regular season, creating a tie for the title that year.
Every other season it was all Bulldogs.
Hollywood would have had Fairfield and Vacaville wrestling on the final week of the season, but they met on Jan. 10, a week after each dispatched their crosstown rivals, Armijo and Wood, in the league openers.
David Yi, a dynamo at 103 or 112 pounds, recalled the atmosphere in Vacaville’s Youngblood Gymnasium as “dark, crowded.”
“I got the sense from the gym this was just another dual (for the Bulldogs), no reason to worry,” said Yi, who has worked in the medical field for more than a decade and coaches wrestling at Las Lomas High of Walnut Creek. “Go on with their business with another notch on their belt.”
“There was a lot of tension in the air, a lot of nervous butterflies,” Kuehl said, “a bit intimidating going to their house. I really don’t think they were expecting to get beat.”
Cardinale decided to forfeit to Armando Orozco at 103 pounds rather than have a JV call-up likely get pinned.
After the forfeit, Yi earned an 11-0 major decision over Sean Kalub at 112 pounds, pulling the Falcons to within 6-4.
It was a while before they’d score again.
Vacaville’s Erik Wallis pinned Yuseff Gassaway in 1 minute, 49 seconds, at 119 and Kevin Riley rolled to a 22-7 technical fall over Justin Day at 125 to up the lead to 17-4.
Then came the evening’s Hollywood moment.
With Bryce Dudgeon injured, Cardinale went with Roberto De la Cruz, who had yet to wrestle a varsity match, at 130 against Vacaville’s Greg Hill.
Cardinale had a good feeling about De la Cruz, despite his inexperience, because “he had a knack for putting guys on his back.”
De la Cruz was taken down 17 seconds in but reversed on Hill only to be reversed on himself. In danger of getting pinned, he reversed back on Hill and put him on his back for nearly a minute before being awarded the pin with 1 second left in the first period.
“There was a point where I thought I was already pinned,” De la Cruz said that night. “It just happened so quick. The next thing I knew I was on him. If I let him go, I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to get him so I held on as hard as I could.”
“He came over the top and pinned him,” Cardinale said. “That was a key match right there.”
That cut Vacaville’s lead to 17-10 heading into the key 135-pound bout between Fairfield’s Ken McKinney and Vacaville’s Andy Borges, a state placer in 1993.
McKinney built a 4-2 lead after the first round and 7-4 after the second before icing the 12-9 win with a reversal with 8 seconds left in a furious third period.
Fairfield had closed the gap to 17-13, but Will Hausler answered with a 12-2 major decision over Ben Davis at 140 to push Vacaville’s lead up to 21-13.
Joe Oliveras responded for the Falcons with a pin of Dave Riddle in 2:54 at 145 to get Fairfield within 21-19.
At 152 pounds, Vacaville’s Jeremy Bragg won a 10-4 decision over Craig Elser to make it 24-19.
The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again.
Kuehl cruised to a 16-4 major decision over Doug Burr at 160 to get the Falcons within 24-23, and Francisco Ochoa put the visitors ahead to stay at 28-24 with a 15-0 technical fall over Elmer Block at 171.
One of the evening’s most exciting matches then proved to be the clincher.
Fairfield’s Aaron Douville and Vacaville’s Nick Long were tied at 5-5 at the end of the second round at 189. Douville took a one-point lead after an escape to start to the final round and then took Long down twice in earning a 10-6 win that sealed the deal.
“Cardinale was giving me some pointers for the last two minutes,” said Douville, who is now a product manager for Genentech living in El Sobrante, “but I’ll always remember looking over during the break and seeing my opponent’s coach pointing up to the daunting number of league championship banners up in the rafters of the gymnasium, and I thought to myself, ‘At least I don’t have that much historical pressure on my shoulders.’”
Fairfield now had an insurmountable 31-24 lead that Ed Marin added to with a 7-0 heavyweight triumph over Dan Orozco.
Larry Nelson, who was in his final season as Vacaville head coach, was gracious in defeat then and now.
“It was a good match,” Nelson said that night. “You couldn’t ask for anything better.”
In looking back 20 years later, Nelson said, “I remember Rocco as a competitive wrestler (at Clayton Valley High) and as a competitive coach with hungry teams.”
There was still the rest of the regular season – Fairfield went 7-0 in dual meets – and the matter of MEL tournament. Twice before the Bulldogs had lost a dual and had come back get a share of the title by winning the league tourney.
Would it happen again?
“Beating them head-to-head was a big deal for the team,” McKinney said. “It would’ve been for naught on some levels if they’d pulled it out in the MELs.”
It didn’t happen. Led by individual champions Yi (103), Kuehl (160), Ochoa (171) and Marin (heavyweight), the Falcons amassed 202 points to 170 1/2 for runner-up Vacaville to win the tournament and claim the outright title.
“They did an excellent job,” Nelson said of the Falcons after the league finals. “They’re an excellent group, well coached. They took it to the whole league. Hail to the champions.”
“It’s a great feeling,” Cardinale said while celebrating the victory. “I can’t describe to you how much time and effort it takes.”
For the Bulldogs, 1993-94 season ranks – statistically – as their worst in the last 35 years.
According to numbers compiled by Vacaville stat guru Bill Hausler, the Bulldogs that year had their lowest individual match winning percentage (62.4), lowest dual match winning percentage (68.2), lowest sub-section/divisional finish (third), lowest section/masters finish (12th) and fewest number of state meet participants (1).
“I’m not making any excuses, but that’s when the . . . Wood expansion (from junior high to high school) really hit us,” said Rich Penaluna, who was an assistant in 1994 and became head coach in 2000. “It really wasn’t Wood’s first year of a senior class, but the ’94 year was when we were really low on depth and we went from a three-year school of 2,300 to a four-year school with about 1,490. It was like, ‘Whoa! Where did everybody go?’ That was one our least effective years.”
Penaluna said losing to Fairfield motivated later Vacaville teams – “They don’t want to be the group to lose again,” he said – and added the Falcons’ success that season was “no fluke.”
“It was an honest-to-goodness win on Fairfield’s part,” Penaluna said. “They put the team together, they won the match, they won the league tournament later on. It happens.”
But it hasn’t happened again.
Vacaville bounced back by winning in 1995 and every year since. After an early loss to Wood in 1996 that was avenged in the league’s mini duals tournament, the Bulldogs have won 93 straight MEL dual matches. Since 1994 they’ve taken 19 straight sub-section/divisional titles, nine section/masters titles, 14 section team duals titles and captured the CIF state title in 2007.
Such dominance “says we’re a very competitive school and a very competitive team and have been for a long time and continue to be,” Nelson said.
Fairfield went on to win the Northwest Sub-Section – with the MEL placing all eight teams in the top 12 – and earned a solid fifth-place finish in the section tournament.
Kuehl and Marin advanced to the state meet with the former finishing seventh and the latter going 2-2.
But it’s winning the MEL title that the Falcons remember most fondly.
“I can’t believe its been 20 years,” said Marin, a Suisun City resident who works in commercial construction. “I knew no one had beaten them before. I never realized no one had beaten them since. That makes it a little more special.”
“That win still serves as an enduring legacy of the great coaching and motivating skills of Cardinale,” Douville said.
“It’s the single most important accomplishment Fairfield High wrestling has done as a team, past and present,” Yi said. “It meant that individuals with less experience, technique and overall knowledge of the sport can overcome these obstacles by working harder, believing in each other and never giving up. I use those beliefs (to) this day for work and coaching.”
Cardinale has kept in contact with several members from his 1994 team, who are now older (35 to 38) than he was when he coached them (34) that season.
“I think that’s the best part of it.” Cardinale said. “You don’t coach for wins and losses, you coach for the relationships. It’s like we never lost each other. . . . It’s just special, fantastic. I loved that group then, I love it now.”
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.