Year in and year out, wrestling is a sport that the Dos Pueblos High Chargers pursue with passion. Their match against Ventura last month was white-hot — or, blond-hot, as the athletes dyed their hair in a show of unity — and before a raucous home crowd, the Chargers took down their league rivals for the first time in nine years. Anthony Califano, their head coach, also sported blond locks after that effort.
DP’s Sovine Gym was the site of the CIF Dual Meet Championships last Saturday. Fifteen other teams, from Santa Maria to the San Gabriel Valley, joined the Chargers to vie for the Northern Division title. It was a kaleidoscopic scene — four square mats covered the gym floor, and in the center of each, wrestlers spun around in simultaneous matches throughout the day. The last team standing was Camarillo, a one-point winner over Bishop Amat in the final.
The Chargers hoped to be there, but they were upset in the second round by Pacifica of Oxnard. The score was 30-29. Pacifica purposely forfeited the last three individual matches, against DP’s best wrestlers, because the Tritons had built up an insurmountable 30-11 lead.
Blair Middleton had the last chance to keep the Chargers in contention. He won his 132-pound match to score three points for the team, but he needed to pin his opponent (six points) to prolong the match. “I tried,” he said. “We don’t have any excuses. Pacifica came in with a better mindset. There are a lot of mental aspects to wrestling, as well as pushing your body to its limits.”
Middleton was a practitioner of martial arts when he took up wrestling. “I wanted to strive to win, the competitive aspect,” he said. At 5’4”, he wasn’t suited to volleyball or basketball. With 14 weight classes from 106 pounds to 285, wrestling offers a chance for boys of all sizes to be courageous. Some schools have trouble finding enough students to fill a complete lineup, but it’s rarely a problem at Dos Pueblos.
“This sport is so character-building,” said Califano, who pointed out that the Chargers still had work to do after the meet. “We’ve got to clean up the gym,” he said. “I have to hand out the medals. Monday, we get ready for the league meet.”
Dos Pueblos will host the Channel League Finals on Saturday, February 14, the varsity matches beginning around noon. Wrestlers from Santa Barbara High, San Marcos, Ventura, and Buena will compete with the Chargers to qualify for CIF individual competition.
Califano, in his 17th year as a DP coach, is a graduate of San Marcos. He wrestled collegiately at Humboldt State and continued his career with Athletes in Action. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1992 but met his match at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas. “I went against a guy who was my hero,” he said. “I got pinned.” That guy was Olympic champion Dave Schultz, one of the country’s most respected wrestlers and the tragic victim of a 1996 murder dramatized in the movie Foxcatcher.
“I didn’t take it as a negative slant on wrestling,” Califano said of the film. “It was a true story. The acting was phenomenal. Mark Ruffalo had the Dave Schultz walk. The wrestling scenes between him and Channing Tatum [who played Schultz’s brother, Mark] were decent. Steve Carell nailed the du Pont character.”
Califano had heard stories about John du Pont, the wealthy heir who brought top U.S. wrestlers to train at his Foxcatcher Farm estate in Pennsylvania. “I’d see him at the meets. He was a very odd, strange man,” Califano said. “Guys would come back from his place and talk about his firearms and the tank he had on the premises.” Dave Schultz was the de facto leader of the resident wrestling squad when du Pont shot him to death.
Despite his eccentricities, du Pont was able to become a powerful sports figure because, like other needy amateur sports in this country, wrestling could scarcely turn down a generous benefactor. The sport endured another insult two years ago when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to drop wrestling from the 2020 Games, only to reverse itself a few months later. Billy Baldwin, a Santa Barbara resident and former college wrestler, led a contingent of Hollywood actors — including Ruffalo and Tatum — who lobbied the IOC on behalf of wrestling.
A SPORTY ENDING: The Santa Barbara International Film Festival was going strong on Super Bowl Sunday, and serious moviegoers had no interest in the big game. Every feature presentation began with a commercial for Ugg Australia shoes (the festival’s main sponsor) starring Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots. When it appeared on the screen at game time, SBIFF director Roger Durling said there was a brief outburst in the theater amid fears that the Super Bowl would be shown instead of a film about corruption in Russia.
So the festival came to a conclusion last Saturday night with a large audience at the Arlington Theatre cheering heartily during a feel-good sports movie. We’ve all seen it before — the gritty underdogs overcoming slings and arrows to emerge victorious against their haughty rivals. But McFarland, USA was a hit in its premiere showing here (it will be released Feb. 20) for several reasons.
It tells a true story about the high school cross-country team in McFarland — a dirt-poor agricultural town between Bakersfield and Fresno — that won the first state championship in 1987. Their coach Jim “Blanco” White is portrayed by Kevin Costner, who has a natural aptitude for sports movies. He clocks the runners with an egg timer and convinces them that they are going to prevail because they work harder. Who else starts their school days picking crops in the fields before sunrise? Most of all, it’s the humanity of the Latino boys and their families that makes the film shine.
McFarland runners won nine state titles in Divisions 3 and 4 (small schools) from 1987-2001. In recent years, they were put into Division 2 against much larger schools. Last fall, they were elevated to Division 1, and for the first time in 25 years, McFarland did not qualify for the state meet. Thanks to the movie, the team’s legacy will not be forgotten.