Reinvigorated Denair wrestling program looking ahead

After a few down years, the wrestling program at Denair High is once again trending in the right direction. There is no better evidence than the Coyotes’ performance the weekend before Thanksgiving at a tournament in Tulare.

Jesse Ruelas Jr., competing at 157 pounds, and Adrian Enciso, at 190 pounds, became the first Denair wrestlers in at least five years to earn medals outside of a Southern League Meet.

Ruelas, a junior, won his weight class in dominant fashion, pinning all four opponents – the last one in just 46 seconds.

“What he did was very impressive,” said Denair Coach Bryan Herrington.

Enciso, also a junior, finished second in his weight class and was one of six Coyotes to earn medals at the Mission Oak Scramble tournament.

The other medalists all were at the boys JV or girls varsity levels – junior Christian Vroni (second at 157), sophomore Even Coronel (third at 190), junior Angel Rodriguez (fourth at 126) and freshman Brianna Thomas (fourth at 170 in her first meet ever).

“We wrestled with 13 wrestlers and brought home six medals,” Herrington said. “We were one of the smallest schools in the tournament but finished in eighth place with 144 team points.”

The early success this season marks a positive turnaround for Herrington, now in his fifth year as head coach, and the Coyotes program. 

“When I first started, we had about 10 kids. There was natural attrition and we finished with four or five first year,” he explained. “Then COVID ruined the whole thing in the second year. The third year, we had few kids come out, but we never got in the rhythm.”

Last year, the program may have hit bottom. “We started with eight or nine kids and finished with two,” Herrington said. “It was very discouraging.”

Faced with a choice of either walking away or trying to find a new way to generate excitement for wrestling, Herrington opted for the latter. Heeding the advice of Jesse Ruelas Sr. – Jesse Junior’s (J.J.’s) father – Herrington started a freestyle wrestling program in March called the Denair Den for kids ages 4 to 17. He got 25 wrestlers of all ages to sign up and they competed in various spring tournaments through June.

At the same time, one other key thing happened – Jesse Ruelas Jr. – who didn’t wrestle his sophomore year, decided to return to the sport last spring and began doing well.

“J.J. came back and started showing out,” Herrington said. “Not only did he come back, he dragged 10 juniors with him. Now I have 16 kids in the wrestling room.”

The result is a reinvigorated program, renewed excitement and the beginning of a youth pipeline that could produce wrestlers for years to come in a notoriously difficult and demanding sport. Wrestling, Herrington will be the first to admit, is not for everyone.

“A little bit has to be a natural ability to tough things out,” said Herrington, describing what it takes to be a wrestler. “A lot of it is mental toughness. We talk about that a lot. Wrestling isn’t for everybody. It’s tough. You have to show up and be willing to get your butt kicked. You have to find it in yourself. I can’t do it for them. 

“A lot of them found it that weekend in Tulare. They realized why I push them to do one more set in practice. I saw the looks on their faces. I said, ‘Do you like that? That’s why we work hard – for that feeling.’ ”

Denair will be back in action this Saturday at the Bulldog Classic in Turlock, where only the four varsity wrestlers – Ruelas, Vroni, Enciso and junior Nick Calderon (215 pounds) – will compete. The following week, the JV wrestlers have a tournament in Livingston. Then, the Southern League dual meet season begins Dec. 20 in Newman against Orestimba. 

Herrington said Denair – like many of the Southern League schools – may not be able to have a wrestler at every weight class, at least not this year.

“We’re stacked in the upper weights,” he said. “We have four at 190, three at 215 and two heavyweights. The bright side is they have plenty of practice partners. Iron sharpens iron. They can beat up on each other. The problem is only one can go to varsity tournaments. But they all can still wrestle at the JV level.”

3 Denair High graduates earn prestigious FFA award

Three recent Denair High graduates recently became the latest recipients in the 94-year history of the school’s FFA chapter to earn the national organization’s prestigious American Degree.

Destiny Lema, Shayln Gomes and Conner Prock all were recognized earlier this month at the FFA National Convention in Indianapolis. All are members of the Denair High Class of 2023.

Lema is now a student at Modesto Junior College working toward completing her veterinarian prerequisites. Gomes attends Fresno State majoring in agriculture education. Prock works with his brother, Kyle, in the beef cattle industry raising a registered Angus herd.

There are many steps to achieving the American Degree, including a supervised project and at least 50 hours of community service with three different organizations, said Denair ag teacher Roger Christianson

Lema was farm manager at Denair FFA farm for one year, raised market hogs and had a breeding hog project. Gomes completed community floral projects, raised market hogs for two years and helped on a goat farm. Prock did ag mechanics projects in addition to raising his registered Angus herd.

This is the second time in its long history that the Denair FFA chapter has had three American Degree recipients in the same year, Christianson said. The previous time was in 1991. Since it was formed in 1929, the Denair chapter has had 20 American Degree recipients. Only about 1% of all FFA members nationally earn the degree.

Denair High principal, student leaders share highlights about life on campus

The staff and students at Denair High School use words like “family,” “fun,” “supportive,” “collaborative” and “superb” to describe the culture and vibe on the campus. And like many small schools, there is a closeness that develops when there are just 278 students, many of whom are in the same classes as well as participate on the same sports teams or belong to the same clubs. They form bonds and relationships that don’t always exist at larger schools.

All those traits and more were in the spotlight at Thursday night’s meeting of the Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees, who listened as the high school’s principal and student leaders shared what day-to-day life is like on campus.

A short video set to music was played that reflected the learning occurring in DHS classrooms as well as many of the fun activities involving students and staff. Principal Breanne Aguiar and six students — Skylynn High (student body president), Emanuel Renteria (rally coordinator), Alyssa Hernandez and Lilianna Marquez (publicity coordinators), Eddie Verdugo (spirit coordinator) and Natalie Rodriguez (leadership team) – took turns talking about various programs and successes.

The bottom line: There is a lot going on at Denair High.

Among the highlights:

  • The addition of a fifth career technical education (CTE) pathway this year. Arts, media and entertainment joins criminal justice, ag mechanics, agriscience and floral arrangement as a series of coordinate classes that help prepare students for careers that don’t necessarily require them to attend college.
  • A robust menu of academic choices for students who are on the college-going track, including the ability to earn college credits from Modesto Junior College while still in high school.
  • An exciting range of electives that includes classes in kinesiology, digital photography, art, agriculture, communication and debate, leadership, band, marketing and even being a teacher’s assistant at the elementary school.
  • An array of social and emotional support systems to help students encountering issues inside and outside the classroom.
  • A full complement of extracurricular activities, including sports teams for boys and girls, nine different campus clubs and opportunities in music and drama.

Aguiar said everything happening at the high school is intended to prepare students to succeed after graduation, no matter which path they may choose.

“Whether they’re interested in attending college, trade school or going into the workforce, Denair High School believes in providing students with opportunities to broaden their perspectives and interests,” she said.

Over the past few years, one of the key efforts at DHS has centered around building a strong culture of inclusivity and connectedness, Aguiar and the students said. That is reflected in how special ed students are integrated into campus activities as well as the ways high school students are serving as mentors to young children.

For instance, Aguiar said that in November many of her students will complete training to become certified in the Friday Night Live mentorship curriculum, which is provided through the Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. Completion of this training will allow students the chance to mentor students at Denair Middle School as well as Denair Elementary Charter Academy. 

All of the classes, relationships with teachers and staff, and extracurricular activities help to shape a positive and impactful culture on campus, one that positively shapes students for life.

“Once a Coyote, always a Coyote,” said Renteria.

In other action Thursday, trustees:

  • Voted 5-0 to ratify an agreement with the California School Employees’ Association and its Denair Chapter #113 that provides 8% salary increase retroactive to July 1 for the 2023-24 school year. CSEA represents most of the staff who are not administrators or teachers. All of Denair’s other employees have already received the same salary increase.
  • Heard an update on attendance at Denair Elementary Charter Academy since minimum days were flipped from Fridays to Wednesdays this year. Superintendent Terry Metzger said absences are down from an average of 42 on Fridays in 2022-23 to 34 in 2023-24. Absences on Wednesday are down from an average of 29 last school year to 27 this school year. 
  • Unanimously approved the Grad Night trip to Disneyland for the Class of 2024 and school staff next spring. Denair High students and chaperones will leave via bus on May 19 and return the next evening.
  • Voted to accept a $210,000 CalSHAPE Ventilation program grant. The money will pay for 270 filters and assessment and maintenance for 99 air conditioning and heating units at Denair High School and Denair Middle School.

Denair cross-country runners qualify for Sub-Section meet

Two runners from this year’s Denair High School cross country team earned all-league honors after finishing in the top seven at the Southern League meet this week.

Salvador Virgen was fourth in the boys varsity race, completing the 3.1-mile course at Diablo Grande west of Patterson in 18 minutes, 58 seconds. Yvette Rodriguez was fifth in the 3.1-mile girls race in 24:13.

Both runners qualified for next week’s Sac-Joaquin Sub-Section meet in Division V at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds in Angels Camp, but only Rodriguez will compete. Virgen will miss the race because he had a previous commitment, said Denair Coach Matthew Groom.

At Sub-Sections, the top 10 teams and the top 10 individuals not on those teams in each division qualify for the Section meet in Folsom on Nov. 11.

This year’s Coyote team included only the two varsity runners, plus JV runners Valente Rosales and P.J. Rheinschild (who both also will compete next week). Despite that, Groom said all four runners have “grown exponentially.” None has improved more than Rodriguez, according to her coach.

“She went from struggling to run two miles in the beginning of the season to winning all-league in a 5K race,” Groom said. “She earned a medal at the Frogtown Invitational in the JV race and came very close to medaling three other times, including being only two spots off a medal the first race I put her on varsity.”

With more players in the pipeline, Denair football coach is optimistic about the future

Even as this football season ended in disappointing fashion with just two victories in nine games, Denair High football coach Anthony Armas already had one eye on the future. 

After four consecutive years of meager turnout at the varsity level, Armas finally can see light at the end of the tunnel. He could have as many as 16 returning players from this year’s 19-man varsity roster, fortified by a group of ascending sophomores who are used to winning.

And while more players aren’t a guarantee of more success on the field, it certainly would be a step forward for the Coyotes, who had as few as 12 varsity players healthy during parts of the just-completed season.

“I think our future is bright,” Armas said. “We were a young team. We only had three seniors. The numbers were rough and then we got bitten by injury bug. … It seems like we always have low numbers, but his year and 2016 really stand out. We made playoffs that year, mainly because we managed to dodge the injury bug.”

It takes 11 players at a time to play football. There were many instances this season when Armas and his assistant coaches far outnumbered the Coyotes’ extra players on the sideline. Because of their small roster, players moved from offense to defense and back again, with rarely a break to catch their breath. Having to play both ways not only put them at a major disadvantage against their opponents, it also increased the likelihood of injury or sustaining more of the bumps and bruises all football players endure.

Hopefully, that won’t be the case next season. Armas’ optimistic vision of the future is buoyed by the performance of this year’s junior varsity, which compiled an 8-1-1 record.

“And we had three sophomores on the varsity, so the JVs could have been even better,” said Armas, who expects to have as many as 30 varsity players next year.

“We’ll have a little bit of everything – some size, some speed,” Armas said. “We might actually get to platoon a little bit and have enough bodies to rest people. The numbers looking good for next few years, as far looking at the classes we have right now and the classes coming up.”

Other than a shortage of players, what else the 2023 season be remembered for? Maybe the first game against Big Valley Christian on Aug. 19 at Jack Lytton Stadium, which was called at halftime because of lightning strikes in the area with Big Valley ahead 14-6.

“I still can’t believe that’s what happened,” Armas said.

The next week, the varsity didn’t get to play because the scheduled opponent, Bret Harte, cancelled its season at the last minute. A win over Riverbank followed, but the Coyotes were undermanned during the entire Southern League schedule, managing only one victory against winless Mariposa.

Just like that, a season that started in the summer heat was over ever before Halloween.

“My coaches and I talked about that,” Armas joked. “We always complain that the season’s over now before we get to wear our cold weather gear.”

Next year, the league will look markedly different. Powerhouses Ripon Christian and Orestimba have been moved out, replaced by Stone Ridge Christian of Merced. The realignment – coupled with a larger roster – gives Armas and his players added hope.

“Lot of kids are eager to get rolling again,” Armas said. “We’re going to give them a little break, then hit the weight room.”