Coach of few words and many titles

Clint Birch was a sophomore at Vacaville High School in 1986 when he learned all he would ever need to know about wrestling coach Larry Nelson. Birch and his teammates were two miles into a training run when Birch was passed by Nelson, who took advantage of the opportunity to give Birch a hard time.

“‘Don’t be a puss, Birch,’” recalled Birch, who has been co-head coach of the program Nelson built since 2006. “I thought there was no way I was going to make it. Larry passed me and I thought he was 90 years old. When you’re 15, everybody over 30 is old. I think that was the only thing he said to me all year.  Larry’s a man of few words. That’s something that’s lost in today’s society. You don’t have to talk to be heard.”

The 48-year-old Birch is nothing like the 89-year-old Nelson because “someone once told me whatever your personality is, coach to 150 percent of it. I’m a bit more demonstrative.” What Birch gleaned from his mentor is that it takes far more than words to be one of the top programs in the state. 

“There’s a lot of killer in (Nelson), “ Birch said. “He’s not wrestling for second place.” 

Former Vacaville principal Ed Santopadre shared the tale of Nelson making a case for Vacaville to be the No. 1 seed in Division I at the Sac-Joaquin Section dual championships. Two other coaches also felt their teams were worthy of the top spot.  Nelson eventually had enough of the squabbling and  conceded.

“‘You can be No. 1 and we’ll be No. 8,’” Nelson said. That meant whichever team got the top seed  would have to face Vacaville in the first round. Vacaville was not the eighth seed, but Nelson proved his point – as usual.

“I don’t know how you can be a man of such few words and have such a big impact,” Santopadre said in respect.

Fred Jones was Nelson’s assistant from 1974 to 1986, so he can speak to Nelson’s understated coaching style. “Larry was never loud. He coached with a quiet tenacity,” Jones said. “He never talked about winning. Everything was about preparation. He taught mental toughness. To Larry, wrestling was a war of wills.”

Where there is a will, the Bulldogs have found a way from Nelson to now.  The 2018-19 season was more of the same. Vacaville won another Monticello Empire League championship and swept the 14 weight classes at the MEL tournament for the first time. The Bulldogs won another section dual title, another section Division I crown and another section Masters championship. Eleven Bulldogs qualified for the state tournament. Among that contingent was  Birch’s son Ethan, who is just a freshman.

About all that was missing this past season was Nelson, who has been battling health issues that prevented him from making it to matches. That his absence was noticed is a testament to how much he is respected.

Larry Nelson

It came as no surprise in 2015 when Nelson was among 11 inductees in Vacaville’s inaugural Hall of Fame class. The surprise was Nelson being on hand when the 11 were introduced at a football game. Nelson has never been one for the spotlight. He runs from it as he did from Birch  in 1986.

Nelson’s legacy is so sacred that Birch had cause for concern when he and Adam Wight became co-head coaches in 2006. Wight did not go to Vacaville High, so he was immune from the talk of upholding a tradition. Birch had to confront it and not allow it to consume him. Fortunately for Birch, there was no need to worry. His toes were safe. Nelson did not step on them.

“Larry would send an email and (write) that we’re not in good enough shape or we’re not working hard enough, but he never told me what to do or how to do it,” said Birch, who teaches at Jepson Middle School. “That’s a testament to Larry because he could have been a great, big, huge shadow.”

Nelson was welcome to stop by practice to work with wrestlers. When Nelson did so in the 2007-08 season, Johnny Schupp would immediately look for a trash can. Hundreds of stand-ups often caused the senior to lose his lunch. And even then, Nelson continued to asking more of his pupil.

“I’d be throwing up and he’d come over and say, ‘We’ve still got work to do,” recalled Schupp, who parlayed all those stand-ups into becoming a state champion in 2008. “Everyone knows who Larry is. Vaca High wrestling is like a Snickers bar. It’s a brand. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you bite into it.”

Steve Hilas, a state champion for the Bulldogs in 1992, took a bite when he was 8 years old and standing outside his mother’s house waiting for Nelson to give him a ride to wrestling club practice. Once the coach arrived in his Volkswagen Vanagan, Hilas would have to listen to Bob Dylan tunes.

“‘Lay Lady Lay,” Hilas quipped.

George Vasquez will never forget the look on Nelson’s face when Vasquez decided not to wrestle in the league tournament as a senior in 1972. He was a good bet to qualify for the Northern California tournament, which at the time was as far as a wrestler could go. The state tournament began in 1973.

Vasquez’s season ended abruptly because his grandmother had died and he chose to be with his family. No coach can hold that against an athlete, but Vasquez still felt as if he had failed Nelson  And he still does.

“It haunts me.I didn’t want him to think I was a quitter,” Vasquez said. “We were always trying to impress him.”

No one wants to let down a legend.

Breedwell is no Jared come lately

Ruffling a few feathers was the least of Stu Clary’s concerns as his Vacaville High School baseball team entered the 2018 Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. He already had enough on his mind in figuring out how to repair the hole in his lineup if the Bulldogs were to stand any chance of winning their first section banner.

The Bulldogs accomplished their 2018 mission, climbing out of the losers bracket and beating Davis twice to take the title. On Monday, the shoe will be on the other foot with Vacaville needing to avoid a sweep by Jesuit to repeat. Vacaville has not lost consecutive games since starting 0-2 last year.

Jared Breedwell was with the junior varsity team at the start of last season. The sophomore had a .532 batting average when Clary patched his hole by promoting the sophomore with five games remaining in the regular season. A few sophomores are promoted each year, usually for no other the reason than to give them a preview of coming attractions. Breedwell earned much more than a preview, however.

Jared Breedwell usually plays right field for the Bulldogs, but he tried his luck at pitching in batting practice Friday.

Breedwell started in right field as Vacaville pulled out a 7-6 victory over Pleasant Grove in the first round of the Division I playoffs. Breedwell repaid Clary’s faith by hitting an RBI single in the seventh inning to win it.

“That was a big step in where we were going,” said senior shortstop Hunter Dorraugh, who knows all about holes after digging one at quarterback for the football team last fall when he went down with a broken collarbone.

The clutch hit by Breedwell may have made it easier for the varsity players to accept him when they could have resented him for taking playing time away from players who had been on the varsity team all season.

Discontent could have divided the dugout into those willing to welcome Breedwell and those who wondering why Breedwell was not on the varsity team in the first place if Clary and his assistants thought so highly of him. The truth be known, Clary said there was a great deal of discussion before last season that Breedwell should have been.

Clary knew what he was doing in starting Breedwell. He accepted the risk of making such a move, just as he did in 2015 when sophomores Tyler Bosetti and Troy Claunch were promoted and became starters. Clary saw in them what the University of Nevada now sees in Bosetti and Oregon State sees in Claunch. Talent is difficult to hide.

“There are specific needs when we make those moves. When we have a need, we’re going to pull the trigger,” Clary said. “We saw (Breedwell) as an upgrade. He’s a special player obviously. We did it to get better.”

That apparently went without saying because Clary did not feel the need to explain anything to his varsity players who were chomping at the bit for an opportunity to play. And if any player was not hip to Breedwell’s presence, Clary figured seniors such as Cole Ellis and Bryce Begell would nip that in the bud immediately.

“A team takes on the personalities of the seniors,” Clary explained, “They’re not going to allow things to permeate.”

Ellis and Begell took Breedwell under their wings and “made me feel like I was on the team all year,” he recalled. 

Breedwell also started the second playoff game against Elk Grove, but he did not finish it because he slipped on the plate as he was scoring and injured his right knee. All of the sudden, Clary had a hole to fill again.

Clary’s squad has stayed intact for the most part this season in going 30-2. Breedwell has gone from potentially rocking the boat last year to socking the ball as a junior to the tune of a .414 average. Much was expected of the Bulldogs in 2019 and they are one victory away from turning the hype into a historic achievement.

“There can be all the hype in the world,” Breedwell said, “but if you don’t play well, it doesn’t mean anything.”