WATSONVILLE—There were times last year when St. Francis High sophomore Johnny Croghan was the lone Shark practicing in the wrestling room.
The Sharks anticipate a different story this season after the program saw a bigger turnout of wrestlers who continue to show up on a daily basis.
Croghan said it’s nice having more teammates onboard but now it’s up to them to stay committed not to just the team, but to themselves. It was something his dad instilled in him as a youngster.
“It’s nice to see other people there, but a little sad for people that I expected to be there,” he said.
This year’s team is made up of 10 wrestlers, which is the biggest group the school has seen in recent years.
The group includes juniors Troy Dawson and Noor Perez-Saldana, along with sophomores Sam Galvan, Joseph Martinez, Nick Paz, Van Ridgway; and freshmen Jacob Almeida, Arthur Gooden, Jacob Rocha and Coy Jordan.
St. Francis coach Gus Paz took over the program after former coach Nick Guerrero stepped down.
Paz makes his return to the helm after coaching at his alma mater, Watsonville High, where he produced 13 Central Coast Section champions and three California Interscholastic Federation State runner-ups from 1989-2015.
This young group of Sharks is still going through some growing pains and Paz expected it. But what’s killing him the most is having to pick up the students and driving them either to Pajaro Valley or Watsonville high schools to use their facilities.
“The benefits of having a wrestling room is huge,” he said.
The upside of having two teams in one room is all the students get to learn from a legendary coach and former state champion.
Paz makes sure to remind the students from all three schools that the team belongs to them.
“I’m just the coach. I come and open the door…what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it,” he said. “That’s what you have to live with for the rest of your life.”
Dawson said he joined the wrestling team to lose weight and to improve his skills on the football field. He’s currently at 290 pounds but he wants to get down to 270 before the end of the season.
“I like it better than football at the moment because there’s a lot more hands-on action,” he said.
Dawson was sidelined after he sprained his shoulder in his first match at the Ed Ferrell Classic at Harbor High School in Santa Cruz on Dec. 3.
He’s using his free time to learn wrestling moves by watching videos on YouTube. Dawson admitted to being a little standoffish walking on the mat but then quickly learned to love the sport.
“It’s kind of like a brotherhood at the moment, everyone’s respectful, kind and all that jazz,” he said. “Coaches will get you energized.”
Jordan also joined wrestling to hone his football skills. He knew it was going to be a challenge because it was an entirely new sport to him.
Yet, he placed fourth at 140 pounds at the Ed Ferrell Classic. It was the first time for Jordan in a one-on-one situation and having to grapple or take someone down on the mat.
“That was very interesting, so many people at a big school,” he said. “I expected something not too good.”
Trying a new sport has also been mentally challenging for Jordan. He’s been working harder than ever to attend practice every day after skipping a couple of sessions because at the time he was too tired.
Like most of the wrestlers on the team, Jordan didn’t know Paz was a former Wildcatz wrestler who won the 1982 CIF Wrestling state championship.
Paz doesn’t boast too much about the glory days, but he does preach about hard work and the dedication it takes to be the best on the mat.
“Those crazy stories of practicing on Christmas Day and stuff like that,” Jordan said. “He wishes sometimes he would’ve made different decisions when he was younger, college wise and stuff like that. Super good guy.”
Paz said it’s about helping the students build confidence, which is what helped him in high school.
“The kids really respond and I just tell them the way it is,” he said. “This is how we run practice, I don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t cry to me about your little finger, don’t cry to me about your little bruise. Suck it up, we’re all going to get it but you just gotta work through it sometimes.”
Paz’s youngest son, Nick, said it’s been a different experience having his dad as a coach, yet it’s still a student-teacher relationship.
“When we’re in the room we shouldn’t be father-son,” he said.
Paz believes a superb season will lie ahead now that they have a larger group of skilled wrestlers with lots of potential. He said it’s also great that teammates can finally match up better unlike last season.
“Get more experience in their weight class compared to a 155-pounder wrestling a 200-pound athlete,” he said.
Paz’s biggest goal was to win after not earning a victory last year. He was victorious in the first two matches by fall and took second at the Ed Ferrell Classic.
Momentum is key in this sport and Paz is aiming to hold on to it moving forward.
Next on his list of goals is utilizing the time to shed some pounds and getting down to the 195-pound weight class.
“After the season I’m going to try to bulk up and be ready for football,” he added.
As for Croghan, he’s preparing for his first appearance in a varsity tournament.
He feels confident enough to feel like he’s past the JV skill level, yet, he also realizes he’s now one of the lowest skilled wrestlers at the next level.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” he said. “Think of your first year in football, JV is a whole different animal than varsity.”
St. Francis will compete in the upcoming Pat Lovell Holiday Classic at Aptos High scheduled for Dec. 27-28. The tournament will feature nearly 60 schools from all over the CCS.
The Sharks begin Pacific Coast Athletic League play in the first Cypress Division meet against Greenfield and Pacific Grove at Pajaro Valley High on Jan. 4.
Others in the division include Gonzales, Pajaro Valley and Rancho San Juan. The Cypress Division Tournament is Jan. 25 at a place and time yet to be determined.
The PCAL Girls Wrestling Championships will be at Alvarez High on Feb. 3 at 2pm, followed by the PCAL League Tournament Finals at Salinas High set for the following day at 9am.
Croghan likes to win but hardly stresses out about placing at the top. His focus is having fun and enjoying the sport, which he does.
Similar to all his teammates, Croghan is just looking forward to improving especially with all the time and commitment he’s put in thus far.
“I hope to get challenged, have those really good matches where you would remember the rest of your life, hopefully,” he said.