Legendary Calaveras High School wrestling coach Vince Bicocca has more league and section championships to his name than most could even dream of. Bicocca helped take the Calaveras program from one of the best in the Mother Lode, to perhaps one of the best in California.
Bicocca won’t ever say which team was his favorite, as that would be like picking a favorite child. But after some heavy contemplation, Bicocca landed on the 2001-02 squad as one of his most memorable.
“Over the years, I have had discussions with past alumni regarding the strongest or best teams I have coached,” Bicocca said. “Even though they always seem to have a selection – which is usually their team – there is no way I could ever rate my teams in that regard. However, all of the teams I have coached – most with Mark Bowe – have special memories for me. The 2001-02 team was special because it was a team which accomplished many firsts. It was my first team to go undefeated at 17-0, the first to win six tournaments, the first to have 13 starters with 20-plus wins and the first to have a state place winner.”
Heading into the 2001-02 season, Calaveras had won back-to-back Mother Lode League titles, along with consecutive CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championships. And with the talented roster returning, there was no question that Calaveras was primed to make another run.
Calaveras returned 35 members from the previous season, which included two-time league champion Sam Fragoza, three-time league champion Jeremiah Bersola, defending league champion Loren Carley and top grapplers Kyle Flynn and Troy Baker. With so much firepower, the expectations surrounding the squad were perhaps at an all-time high.
“Both Bowe and Bicocca drilled it into us that we were all capable of reaching any level that we wanted,” Fragoza said. “It was just a matter of putting in the work. From day one at Calaveras, I was told that the sky was the limit. The Wall of Champions there in the room was a big help. You had pictures of guys that did have success. It’s kids just like you in the same room with the same coaches. So, if they could do it, then you knew you could as well. State champ was always the goal.”
Bicocca added, “We did have high expectations for this team due to the large number of returners. That puts more pressure on the team but that’s not always a bad thing. This group expected to win, and they did.”
Calaveras began the season with a strong 51-10 victory over Ceres. Calaveras got wins from Jason Kulp (103- pound weight class), Fragoza (112), Nathan Larkin (125), Carley (130), Flynn (145), Rodney Landriff (152), Tyke Woden (160), Dan Rios (171), Deniz Achibas (215) and Troy Baker (heavyweight).
Calaveras continued to have strong performances during the preseason, with a 53-20 win over Tokay and a 74-3 thrashing of Dixon. But it was also at tournaments where Calaveras could flex its muscles and take on competition it wouldn’t see in the Mother Lode League.
At the Santa Cruz Classic, Calaveras placed second overall during the first day of the two-day tournament and fifth the following day. Having a tough preseason schedule helped Calaveras get prepared for what it could see once the postseason arrived.
“Our emphasis was always on the postseason,” Bicocca said. “Our philosophy was always, ‘It’s where you finish, not where you start.’ To prepare the team for the postseason we knew we had to see tough preseason competition and it paid off. Not only did this promote individual improvement weekly, but it also helped with the wrestlers’ self-confidence.”
After an impressive preseason that also included first-place finishes at the Provart Tournament, the Hatler Tournament and its own Gordon Hay Invitational, Calaveras began league competition with an 84-0 road victory over Argonaut. Up next was a 79-0 shutout over the Summerville Bears, which pushed Calaveras’ overall record to 12-0. Calaveras stayed perfect with a 58-10 victory against Amador in Sutter Creek.
At the Mother Lode League Tournament, Calaveras placed first for its third league title in a row and 12th overall. Calaveras got wins from Fragoza, Mike Johnson, Carley, Bersola, JR Macias, Acikbas and Baker.
“I think the team appreciated the league championship but considered it a steppingstone to bigger and better things,” Bicocca said. “These guys were very competitive.”
With the league season in the books, Calaveras shifted its attention to the postseason. Calaveras placed second at the small school sections, finishing only 1.5 points behind Escalon. Baker was Calaveras’ lone first-place finisher. Fragoza, Bersola and Acikbas placed third.
Calaveras rebounded nicely and went on to win the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section III championship. Calaveras became the first division III team to win the title three straight years. Calaveras began by beating Livingston 63-9 and then knocked off Colfax 44-25. The title was captured with a 39-24 win over Golden Sierra. Fragoza, Carley, Bersola, Macias, Acikbas and Baker all went 3-0 during the tournament.
After competing at the Sac-Joaquin Section Tournament, Calaveras’ Fragoza qualified to wrestle at the CIF State Wrestling Championship. Fragoza, who competed at 103 pounds, lost his opening match, but battled back to claim his spot in the biggest tournament of the year. Even with such a long season nearly completed, Fragoza knew he didn’t have time to let up.
“I think the mental game was the hardest to overcome,” Fragoza said. “The personal pressure of being on top has a weight to it for sure. On one hand, I had the advantage of wrestling against some of the toughest humans alive. At the same time, I had the disadvantage of not knowing that we were all outliers. At 14, you’re embarrassed to drop a one-point match to Chad Mendez or lose at all to a scrub like TJ Dillashaw; 20 years later you can see how ridiculous that sounds. There were studs in that group that most people have never heard of who went on to be All-Americans and National Champs. The mental game is a real one that can make or break you in this sport.”
At the state championship, Fragoza finished fourth. At the end of the two-day tournament, Fragoza ended up breaking the Calaveras County record by becoming the highest state championship medalist.
“Sam’s journey to Calaveras High School’s first state medal was truly amazing that year,” Bicocca said. “We knew he had the ability, but after he placed third at the Small School Section and fourth at the masters it would have been very easy for Sam to lose confidence. I think coach Bowe’s background in psychology was instrumental in keeping Sam focused and confident.”
Fragoza added, “Placing in 2002 was a big step for me. I had seen a rival place the year before. I knew then that I was also at that level. Seeing someone you had a close match with place at the state breaks down mental barriers that keep you from growing. I remember coach Bowe and Bicocca telling me, ‘That should be you.’ They had a way of making me believe I was capable of anything."
Calaveras won its fourth CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship the previous year and captured yet another league title. Success continued to follow the program and 18 years later, Calaveras remains one of the top teams around.
But for Bicocca, there was just something special about the 2001-02 squad, which makes it one of the most memorable teams in the history of the school.
“This was really a fun team to coach,” Bicocca said. “They were extremely focused, competitive and coachable and yet always seemed to have a good time. The parent support was also fantastic and of course, I will always remember our first state place winner.”
As for Fragoza, he credits the Calaveras wrestling program for shaping him into the person he currently is.
“Calaveras wrestling made me the hard-working and driven man I am today,” he said. “Not that my parents did not instill those values in me as well, but wrestling has a way of finding the ‘quit’ in you. It does not matter how tough you are, it will find that ‘quit.’ Any wrestler you see making it all four years and no doubt those in college, have made that choice to replace that quit with perseverance. Life does not pull punches and there are many days I feel defeated or un-accomplished. But I will return always to the mentality that got me through wrestling. Hard work pays off.”