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.”

Elvis estatic after finding way to Cal

Panic hit Cole Elvis like a fastball to the ribs when he made a verbal commitment in December 2017 to play baseball at San Jose State. Five of his Vacaville High School teammates would be going to universities such as Oregon State and Nevada, so Elvis figured he would have to take what he could get and settling for less was better than going to a junior college.

Troy Claunch was at Oregon State, Tyler Bosetti at Nevada, Shea Kramer at Utah, Braydon Altorfer at the Air Force Academy and Bryce Begell had committed a year earlier to play at Arizona. Elvis was left to choose between San Jose State and UC Davis with little reason to think a better offer would be coming his way.

“I didn’t see going anywhere else,” Elvis explained. “With two options, I really didn’t think there was a reason to wait.” 

A better offer eventually came, and that is why Elvis will be wearing a Cal uniform Friday when the Golden Bears begin a three-game series against Arizona State in Berkeley. After Elvis found a way to get away from San Jose State, Cal happened to be in a market for a catcher. The rest is almost too good to be true.

Elvis had no idea when he signed his letter of intent with San Jose State that Spartans coach Jason Hawkins was under investigation for holding illegal practices. Elvis requested to be released from his letter of intent and given the circumstances, the Spartans obliged. He did not leave as much as he escaped.

The turmoil turned into a convenient excuse for Elvis to bail out, but now he realizes he should have never pledged to San Jose State in the first place. His senior year at Vacaville High was four months old when Elvis punched the panic button in fear he would graduate with no clue where his career would continue.

Elvis may have forgiven San Jose State had he not been kept in the dark during the investigation.  He was confident Hawkins had the program going in the right direction and looked ahead to developing his skills as a catcher with assistant coach Tyler LaTorre, who was Italy’s catcher in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

“There was a lot of stuff left unsaid (during the investigation). That brought up some red flags,” Elvis recalled. “(LaTorre) took it really well. He knew there were a lot of moving parts. He tried to get me to stay. He told me that if I decided to come back, the offer would be still be there. Everything happens for a reason.”

Regardless of the reason, Elvis could not be happier at Cal. Most of his playing time as a freshman has come in nonconference games, but Elvis realizes he has to pay his dues. He has belted three of his five home runs in nonconference games on Tuesdays to earn the moniker of “Mr. Tuesday” from his teammates.

“Give me a weekend game,” Elvis quipped, “and I bet I’ll hit a homer then, too.”

His power has come as a surprise given that Elvis hit a total of three homers in his last two seasons at Vacaville. “I’m getting good pitches to hit, pitches up in the zone,” said Elvis, who still has to much to prove at the plate. His .188 average is the lowest among 11 Cal players with 40 or more at-bats this season.

Two of his nine hits came March 12 in a 13-0 victory over San Jose State. He also had two RBI and scored twice. By the way, that was on a Tuesday.

Ex-Aggies apply for work in NFL

Keelan Doss (left) went from the disappointment of not being selected in the NFL Draft to signing with the Oakland Raiders. The wide receiver, who played for Raiders coach Jon Gruden in the Senior Bowl, is not the only former UC Davis player to have an opportunity to earn a job in the NFL. Linebacker Mason Moe (right) and defensive back Vincent White (above) have been invited to rookie mini-camps by the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos, respectively.

When NFL calls, Doss will answer

“Are you my son?”

Tammie Chambless asks that question when she looks at her only child and wonders if he might just be too good to be true. Keelan Doss has accomplished quite a bit in 22 years. He graduated from UC Davis in December with a degree in sociology after becoming one of the top wide receivers in college football.

If Chambless thinks Doss is a bit annoyed by her posting and boasting on Facebook, imagine what will happen her son’s name is called Saturday when the NFL Draft enters rounds 4-7. Doss emerged in 2016 by catching 66 passes for 911 yards and 10 touchdowns. As a junior in 2017, he had 115 receptions for 1,499 yards and seven touchdowns on his way to being named the the Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference.

Doss could have skipped his senior season at UC Davis and entered the draft last year, but he had a feeling that 2018 would be special. The Aggies won seven of 26 games in Doss’ first three years (he redshirted in 2015), then went 5-6 in 2017 after Dan Hawkins returned to his alma mater as coach.

Doss could have skipped his senior season at UC Davis and entered the draft last year, but he had a feeling that 2018 would be special. The Aggies won seven of 26 games in Doss’ first three years (he redshirted in 2015), then went 5-6 in 2017 after Dan Hawkins returned to his alma mater as coach.

As Hawkins restored pride in the program, the decision by Doss to stay put inspired his teammates to sacrifice as much as he did by opting to return instead of pursuing fame and fortune in the NFL.

If Doss had “unfinished business,” as Hawkins said, the Aggies repaid Doss for in his investment of faith by going 10-3, earning a share of the Big Sky championship and reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time.

 If Doss had “unfinished business,” as Hawkins said, the Aggies repaid Doss for in his investment of faith by going 10-3, earning a share of the Big Sky championship and reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time.

Chambless loves to brag about her son on Facebook, but she refuses to accept any credit for all he has accomplished. “This is his story. This is his doing. This is his path,”  she said. “I’m his biggest fan. He’s not one for attention. He’s always telling me, ‘Mom, you don’t have to tag me in everything on Facebook.’”


“Is that your grandson?”

Bob Matteson expects to hear that question when he sits in his favorite Lodi donut shop and proudly points out the framed photo of Doss on the wall. Chambless’ father realizes how difficult it will be for most folks to come to grips with the notion that an 83-year-old white man is claiming to have a black grandson.

“It’s always been perfectly natural for us,” Matteson exclaimed in reference to anyone who might think otherwise.

Doss visited his grandfather at the donut shop in November and autographed the photo. According to Chambless, Doss sent her a text after four hours to let her know he was still in Lodi. Mattson begs to differ with the time element, saying Doss stayed no longer than 90 minutes. Doss says it was more like 2 hours.

“(Doss) made his grandpa’s day,” Chambless said.

What really mattered to Matteson is that Doss took the time in the heart of football season to visit his grandfather. Chambless and Doss’ father, Keith Doss, never married, so Chambless and her son lived with her parents when Doss was a toddler. In raising her son, Chambless counted on her parents to lend a hand.

Even after Chambless and Doss moved to Alameda, her parents continued to provide guidance for their grandson. “They believed in him when he was finding his way,” Chambless recalled. “That’s all he needed.”

Doss has paid tribute to his grandparents with tattoos on his left arm. He got his first after turning 18,  much to his mother’s chagrin until she learned the tattoo would be of her father’s favorite Bible verse – John 3:16.

The second tattoo is a portrait of his grandmother, Julie Matteson, who died in 2016. Chambless has the same one.

“She will live forever with me,” Doss said of his grandmother. “She was a great person. She treated everyone equally.”

Julie Matteson did not see saw her grandson as black. Doss has never thought of his grandparents as white. Chambless is as proud of her son for embracing his mixed ethnicity as she is of his ability to catch a football.

“I’ve never put two and two together. I don’t think about it like that,” Doss said. “It’s a weird dynamic, but I’ve never been bothered by it. I can be both black and white. That’s great for me. Everybody’s the same anyway.”