VALLEJO , Calif. -- The pictures hanging on the concrete walls of Jason Guiducci's gymnasium office tell the story of the Springstowne Wildcats. The team photos from the past 15 years include more and more ponytailed girls over time, until you get to last year's picture, which has so many they can barely be contained in the margins of the frame.
In fact, all of the walls in the office, which sits just off a cozy mat room on this converted high school campus at Hogan Middle School, are a hanging history of the country's largest girls' school wrestling program.
There are the citations from the mayor's office, newspaper clippings from the team's visit to the California State Assembly, homemade photo collages from team trips.
Just outside the office door sits a collection of trophies and a large U.S. map filled with circles drawn in black marker, showing all of the states where the girls have gone to compete.
Guiducci, the founder and coach of the program, is sitting at his desk for a moment, taking a quick breather.
He has already ushered a practice gym full of nearly 100 girls, jockeying for warm-up space on the mats, into two different gyms for competition. He's running the Northern California girls' wrestling championships, supervising volunteers and referees, checking on the snack bar, and shouting instructions at his wrestlers as he dashes past their mats on his way to putting out the next fire.
"Up, straight up!" he yells at Jamie Carino, an eighth-grader who is the third girl in her family to wrestle for what is now the Springstowne Wrestling Academy. Her sisters, Clarissa and Jennifer, have come over from their spots at two different scorer's tables to coach their sister from the corner of the mat.
The older Carino sisters came back on this sunny Sunday morning to help out with the meet. Their mother, Christina, is taking photos for the team.
"It's like a family," Christina Carino said.
Guiducci will tell you it's the only way he can run the program -- by getting help to coach nearly 90 middle school girls in a sport that Christina Carino admits she didn't think was appropriate for her daughters at first.
"My oldest came home and said she wanted to wrestle, and I said, 'What?'" Christina said. "After watching her that first time, I'm still screaming the same way I did that day."
Yes, wrestling for girls
Kent Bailo, director of the U.S. Girls' Wrestling Association, is in town for the meet. He calls Springstowne Wrestling Academy "a cult of good."
"There's nothing else like this in the country," Bailo said. "The girls love it. They tell their friends and they bring them here."
Girls' wrestling is among the fastest-growing high school sports; more than 7,300 girls competed across the country in 2010-11, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Five states currently hold sanctioned high school championships: Washington, Hawaii, California, Texas and Massachusetts. But middle school wrestling for girls is a hit-and-miss proposition, the opportunities varying widely from place to place. Springstowne is an aberration, not only for its size, but its success.
Springstowne has won 12 Vallejo City titles and six California championships. The program has sent dozens of girls into high school wresting programs and produced a handful of state medalists.
Four former wrestlers went on to Cal, where they are honor students.
Finding a base
The program wasn't always a hit at Springstowne.
Guiducci started it at Springstowne Middle School in 1996. The first two girls didn't join until 1999, and they had to wrestle against boys. It was a trickle compared to the flow he now has coming in. Guiducci has an "open door" policy. Girls can come in and join at any time during the year. A few arrived only last week.
"I can't seem to keep them from coming," Guiducci said.
Not that he's trying.
Hazel Solar is a seventh-grader, the fourth girl in her family to wrestle for Springstowne.
"It's in my blood," Solar said. "I can't explain it, but I really love it. It's my favorite sport."
Jamie Carino used to come to meets with her mother to watch her older sisters and work in the snack bar. Now it's her turn. She is one of the team's most experienced wrestlers. When she is not competing, she is mat-side cheering for and coaching her teammates. Guiducci can't be everywhere.
"I love how we all support each other," Jamie Carino said. "When you lose, there's always somebody there to make you feel better. There are so many of us."
No place like home
And after they wrestle here, they keep coming back.
Many, like the Carino sisters and 19-year-old Brenda Luke, return to help with coaching, scoring and mentoring. Luke, who graduated from high school in 2011, wrestled at Springstowne starting in the sixth grade after trying it in Guiducci's physical education class.
"I've been coming back to help since freshman year of high school. I've never really left, I guess," Luke said. "This program was such a big deal to me. It was always more than wrestling; it was about morals and respect."
When Luke joined the team, there were about a dozen girls and 30 to 35 boys.
"These girls mean so much to me," Luke said. "I will always come back."
Two dozen boys also compete at Springstowne. Guiducci credits them with being true teammates.
"This program is not successful without the boys," Guiducci said. "They have shared the spotlight, even surrendered it for the attention that goes to the girls. I can tell you for certain that in some mat rooms, even in the Bay Area, that when the girls come in, the boys run out. But this is a great group of boys. Some of them have sisters who wrestled here."
Enrique Mata, who wrestles for Springstowne, had an older sister who wrestled. He remembers attending meets when he was younger and wanting to do what she was doing.
"Some girls, they like to get out and do what they want," Mata said. "I remember watching it and thinking it looked really fun."
Accentuate the positive
Guiducci is set on making sure his program is a bright light in a community. Vallejo, 20 miles northeast of San Francisco, has the kinds of distinctions that no city wants. In 2008, it became the largest American municipality ever to declare bankruptcy. The working-class port city of more than 100,000 saw its violent-crime rates jump as its police force took huge cuts. Firehouses and libraries also closed.
Forbes has twice ranked Vallejo on its list of Most Miserable Cities in America. This year it is No. 6.
Guiducci has tried to generate positive media coverage for the girls, who he believes are an antidote for what's wrong in Vallejo. He invited the media to campus for a press conference when the team won a state championship. On the day the reporters were supposed to come, an ice cream driver was murdered within sight of the school grounds. They covered the shooting instead.
"It's hard. I don't really want to get into all the negativity around us," said Guiducci, a married father of two who has been teaching middle school physical education in Vallejo for 15 years. "We are here to do something positive in this community. Most of our kids are honor roll students, in a district with a 50 percent dropout rate. Wrestling is an individual sport, but we have really tried to make this a team. The truth is, we might have kids that don't even like wrestling that much, but they like being part of the group. It's a support group, and the kids feel better about themselves for being a part of it."
Guiducci's wrestlers do community service projects: collecting goodies to send to troops overseas, working at charity walks for breast cancer research, helping to build a neighborhood playground.
"I'm trying to teach them that the community needs them," Guiducci said.
Bailo says Guiducci is "like P.T. Barnum."
Guiducci herds 90 girls into wrestling practice and tournaments while finding enough uniforms and shoes. Yes, that certainly looks like a circus.
There were so many girls in Guiducci's program this year that he ran out of girls' singlets, so he had to give boys' uniforms to some of the girls. Then he ran out of those. There was no money to purchase more, as the program runs on donations, with no school funding.
Former wrestlers leave their shoes behind for the next group of athletes, sometimes putting their names and years in the shoes as if they were old school textbooks, their history recorded for posterity.
Some of the pairs date to the days when Springstowne Middle School was open, a few blocks from the Hogan site. When budget cuts and declining attendance forced the Vallejo Unified School District to close schools, Springstowne was on the chopping block -- Guiducci's program along with it.
"I was worried, the kids were worried," Guiducci said. "We stuck our necks out there."
The students on the team went to the school board and got petitions signed.
"First it was 'Don't close our school,' and then it was 'Don't take our name,'" Guiducci said. "We had raised funding to pay for warm-ups and mats, tens of thousands of dollars, and everything said Springstowne. We had one school board member who advocated for us. She told us she didn't want to see the program end in her boardroom."
Adrienne Waterman first met Guiducci before she was a school board member. She had fought successfully for the construction of a playground at a local park, and it was to be a community project, the work done by volunteers.
Guiducci and a group of his girls were among those who came out to help.
"Here he comes with a team of 90-pound skinny girls whose T-shirts all looked too big for them," Waterman said. "That was my introduction to Springstowne girls' wrestling. And these darling little girls were using hammers and nails and pulling wheelbarrows. It leaves an impression."
Waterman has been a dedicated fan since, showing up at meets to cheer them on.
"What we have here is so distinctive," Waterman said. "Jason is Hercules as far as I'm concerned. He really is. He has pure respect for the kids. It's serious business for him. This isn't quaint for him. He's holding this thing up all by himself with his drive and his passion."
Springstowne is a national name in some respects. In wrestling circles, people know what's happening here. But in Vallejo, where crime and poverty are the more pressing issues of the day, Waterman believes there is not enough recognition or support. There are high-ranking officials in the school district who don't know much about the program.
"This program does not have the star power it deserves," Waterman said. "We were in a state of chaos for a long time, trying to keep programs alive, and this one has been kept alive because of Jason and the power of what he's doing, because there wasn't a tremendous amount of support. Our local newspaper doesn't cover this. I would love to tell you that they all look like superheroes in this city, but to be quite honest, I think Springstowne is better-known outside of Vallejo than it is here."
Waterman said she is intent on changing that.
"This program has done things we will never be able to quantify. How many girls didn't get pregnant, decided to go to college, didn't fall into things they shouldn't have?" Waterman said. "It's a magnificent thing."