The Beechwood Wrestling Club started from scratch back in September, thanks to Mr. Pantoja and a former Menlo Park police officer, James Lavano, who drove down once a week from Sacramento to help coach.
"We're making it work through donations," said Mr. Pantoja. "One lady covered an entire trip, $600, for food, hotel rooms." Donated time, donated space, donated mats. Sometimes it even takes asking for more time, to spread out payments.
All the generosity has carried the team to tournaments as far away as Sacramento. At their last meet, 11 of the 12 elementary school kids who competed earned medals. Not bad for wrestlers who didn't know a sprawl from a belly down 10 months ago.
As practice continues on a warm Thursday afternoon, the corners of the room sometimes fill with those who "got hit in the soft spots," as one young man put it.
Fifteen recruits eventually responded to 2,000 fliers advertising the club. If potentially painful practice isn't enough to frighten away prospects, the uniforms might be. "At first, absolutely, you don't want to wear the singlets," admitted Mr. Pantoja. "But now they're sold on what wrestling is. It's one of the most character-testing sports. It's just you on the mat; you have to have courage to get out there. And to go out there and lose."
His wrestlers have done their share of winning, though. They've become the undercover team to beat, according to their coach. The club took home the Peninsula League Elementary Division second-place trophy in May.
Girls just wanna have fun
One team member, sixth-grader Bianca Vargas, stood out not only for her skills, but also for how she chose to deploy them. Girls wrestling boys made national headlines in February. In Iowa, Cassy Herkelman, 14, became the first girl to win a state wrestling match there after her male opponent refused to wrestle a girl, according to the Associated Press.
So far, Bianca hasn't encountered that problem, although someday soon her wrestling skills might send the boys running from the ring for different reasons. She took fourth place at the club's last meet, losing to two boys — and beating two others. "Pinned one of them," said Mr. Pantoja.
Bianca could have won an individual championship in the girls division, according to her coach, but decided to wrestle with the boys to rack up team points. "She almost took third; it was a very close tough match," her coach said.
Mr. P cares
Mr. Pantoja's day job entails leading legions of Beechwood students through the complexities of language and history. He's taught at the private, nonprofit school in Menlo Park for four years. The 30-year-old teacher admitted the lessons don't stop at the edge of the wrestling mat. "Correcting grammar on the mat, it happens!" he said, laughing. "I'm on them — 'Did you do your homework?'"
The lessons he teaches have extended beyond the classroom and the club. "We all have the capacity to care, but a lot of times we don't do so," said Vince Lin, who filmed a short documentary about the club to show people how easy it is to make a difference.
Easy, maybe, but not effortless. Mr. Pantoja was looking forward to taking a month off during the summer. But he'll be back. "I'm in it for the long haul."
So is assistant coach Joey Christopherson, 17, who wrestles at Palo Alto High School's varsity team. Plans for the club's second year include competing in two leagues from January through May.
The kids travel from Belle Haven, the Willows, East Palo Alto, and other nearby communities to practice three afternoons a week. Quinnton Allen, 12, is a boy of few words but many moves. Asked how wrestling makes him feel, he answered, "Happy."
Teammate Raul Ponce, 12, at first thought wrestling was a great way to sometimes get out of school early. Taking a breather during practice, he said he's now excited about getting out there to do his best, and bounced back on to the mat.
Their coach kept an eye on the kids as they wove intricate patterns on the mat, reminding the wrestlers to be gentle first, aggressive second. "Friends.... FRIENDS," he shouts. After a pause, he voices one wish. "If I could change anything, it would be to get more kids involved," Mr. Pantoja said.
Visit tinyurl.com/Beech11 to see Vince Lin's short documentary on the Beechwood Wrestling Club, "Mr. P Cares."
Peninsula League Championship