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Mendota High School chess team celebrates national victory

November 2, 2011 |  5:08 pm

Medota-youtube_dvd.originalThis time the Knuckleheads -- the surprising chess champions from drought-weary Mendota where almost half of the Central Valley town is unemployed -- knew they had a chance.

Going into the state championship last year, it had never occurred to the Mendota High School players or their coach, Vaness French, that they could win against teams from more affluent towns.

Last weekend going into the National Scholastic Championship in Santa Clara, "we knew we had a shot but that it wasn't going to be easy. This is nationals. Anyone weak is going to be served up as sushi,"  French said.

At first, it was ugly.

"Our kids got whipped in the first rounds," said "Tio" Ernie Lozano, the team's longstanding mentor. "They were so down and dejected, but they weren't giving up."

To make matters worse, the team was hungry. Early in the day, they ran out of the burritos they brought. There were no fast-food joints nearby and a hamburger in the hotel cost $15.

Lozano and his wife, Gloria, called her sister in Kingsburg, and told her to start making tacos.

The next day, the team left at 5:30 a.m from Mendota to go to the second day of competition. The Lozanos brought big roll-on suitcases that puzzled the kids. After the first round-of play, the Lozanos started serving the tacos out of the suitcases.

Chrispen Reyes, the high school team captain, played his best to date, coming in fifth in individual rankings and carrying the team to a first place.

"It was a photo finish, a split-hair win," French said. "Did you know chess could be so exciting?"

The high school team had hoped to send their five best players to one of the larger more established championships, either in Wisconsin or Florida in the spring.

"But it was going to take so much money with airfare," French said. "We made a compromise, and aimed for this newer, smaller one in California, so that we could take the whole high school team. We like to stick together."

And bring tacos.

(To see slideshow of team's journey, click photo.)

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-- Diana Marcum in Fresno

Photo: The Mendota High School chess team celebrates its chess championsip.

Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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