Before they learn to walk, kids usually start to wrestle. They squirm, push, and kick, trying to loosen the controlling grasp of big people. For most of them, once they learn to negotiate, wrestling becomes a forgotten part of their lives. For a few of them, it is practice.
Alex Mack was a freshman at San Marcos High School when, as part of off-season football training, he was required to work out on the wrestling mat for a week. “I loved it,” Mack said. “I thought it was fun trying to throw people around.” Mack was put on the varsity wrestling team, where often he was the one getting tossed around. “I went up against guys who knew what they were doing,” he said.
Mack found that wrestling enhanced his physical and mental well-being. “It gave me confidence when I played varsity football as a sophomore,” he said. “Football is a lot easier. Wrestling practices were tough. You have to go all-out [in matches] for six minutes. I was a little chunky, and it got me in shape.”
As a senior in 2003-’04, Mack was a 277-pound behemoth who excelled in both sports. He was a CIF Southern Section Masters wrestling champion and runner-up in the State Championships, and he was a heavily recruited football lineman. He would go on to become an All-American center at Cal Berkeley, the Pac-10 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns. He made the Pro Bowl this past season, his second in the NFL.
While he has found a measure of fame and fortune on the big stage of pro football, Mack looks back on his wrestling career as a time of great personal development. “All the hard work goes directly into you and your success,” he said. “You can feel that improvement happening every day. In football, you can have a great individual effort, and if the team loses, it sucks. In wrestling, if you lose, it’s all on you.”
Similar sentiments were expressed last Saturday by the boys participating in the Channel League Wrestling Championships at Dos Pueblos High’s Sovine Gym. Tension mounted throughout the day, as match after match led up to the final varsity bouts in each of the 14 weight classes.
“I love the feeling I get before it’s my turn to go out and wrestle,” said DP heavyweight Zach Wagner. “I get nervous. I stutter my speech.” He was pinned in his semifinal match and finished third. “It’s not fun,” Wagner said. “You’re like a turtle being stuck on its back.” In matches where he emerges victorious, he said, “It’s a massive adrenaline rush. There are times you’ve got to blow a gasket, and wrestling is one of those sports.”
The first nine varsity finals pitted wrestlers from Dos Pueblos and Ventura against each other. To the cheers of family and friends, DP’s Chargers won six of them. It all started in the 114-pound bout when Chad Lampe, a sophomore, turned the tables on Ventura senior Patrick Birkimer and pulled out a 6-5 decision. Lampe leapt into the arms of DP coach Anthony Califano and then embraced his father. “Patrick is a great wrestler, but my will was more than his will today,” Lampe said. “I owe it to God.”
“If that’s what it takes to motivate you, I respect that,” DP senior Harrison Solomon said. “Chad got us all excited. He has had so many tough matches against that guy [Birkimer]. He had to be mistake-free to beat him.”
Known as the “Hebrew Hammer,” Solomon won the 127-pound title. His wrestling career will end in the upcoming CIF competitions. He said the discipline of the sport will carry over into his studies for a teaching degree. “There are not many kids in this school who can do what we do,” Solomon said. “We practice for two hours, and then go out and run to lose weight.”
Other champions from Dos Pueblos were Nico Sorenson (121 lbs.), Sam Sarmiento (137 lbs.), Brian Dominguez (142 lbs.), and Brandon Velasquez (154 lbs.). At 191 pounds, DP senior Lucas Rascon and Santa Barbara junior Bryce Vinion clashed like a pair of bulldozers. Vinion pushed harder toward the end of the match to win a decision and become the first Dons league wrestling champion in years, much to the pleasure of third-year coach Jesse Plowman, a former DP wrestler. “I feel like the strongest human on the face of the earth,” Vinion said.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Emilie Johnson (55 points in her last two games) will lead the UCSB women’s basketball team tonight (Thu., Feb. 10) against UC Irvine and Saturday, February 12, 2 p.m., against UC Riverside at the Thunderdome. The Gaucho men and Orlando Johnson, who scored a school record-tying 39 points in last Saturday’s overtime thriller against UC Davis, are on the road. Fox Sports West will televise their 5:30 p.m. Saturday game at Irvine. Westmont College will host a Saturday-evening doubleheader against Azusa Pacific, which is highly ranked on the NAIA women’s and men’s basketball polls.