By Phil Jensen
HAYWARD, Calif. - Chabot’s Anthony “AJ” Cress doesn’t believe a day went by during his time in the United States Army when he didn’t think about wrestling.
“It pushed me to be who I am today,” Cress recalls. “I started at age 11, and I’ve been wrestling ever since.”
The 25-year-old freshman will compete in the California Community College Athletic Association Wrestling State Championships Friday and Saturday at San Joaquin Delta. Cress, who won a NorCal Regional title in the 174-pound division on Dec. 2, is ranked No. 2 in the state by caccwrestling.com.
From 2011 to 2016, Cress served in the Army, including a combat deployment for nine months in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013.
“It is what people think it is: It’s war … It’s a combat zone,” Cress says of his time in Afghanistan. “We were there to help the people out.”
When he enlisted, the 2010 Antioch High School graduate felt he would mesh well in the armed forces.
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be just like wrestling … which it kinda was,” says Cress, who is currently in the Reserves in addition to majoring in fire science at Chabot. “Hard pace, hard tempo, teamwork … things I was already used to growing up as far as sports.”
Cress was also part of the 173rd Airborne in Italy as an airborne paratrooper, and he had an occupational deployment in Kuwait in 2015.
But he had to make an adjustment when he left active duty.
“For a lot of veterans, it’s really tough, you know, because you are leaving a lifestyle of people who have the same mindset as you … When you get into the civilian world, it’s almost like you are kind of out of place in a way,” Cress says. “There was a bit of a sad time in my life for those first few months. I honestly felt like something was missing.”
His family sat him down and he admitted that he missed wrestling.
“They said ‘go try out for a college’. And I said, ‘what college?’” recalls Cress, who lives in Antioch and was a student at Los Medanos College, which does not have a wrestling program. “I called a few of my coaches from high school and friends, and they said you should go to Chabot.”
Gladiators coach Steve Siroy has no complaints. Cress is a team captain
“He’s a hard worker. He takes responsibility for what he does,” Siroy says. “He puts the extra time in. After practice, he has guys stay with him and they do extra drills.”
At Antioch High, Cress was a two-time Bay Valley Athletic League champion and won the 2010 North Coast Section title at 152 pounds. He was known for his flashy and spectacular style in the Panthers program, which explains his old nickname, “Big Dog.”
He has a 22-3 record this season and avenged one of his losses in the NorCal Regional finals, when he beat Abel Garcia of Sacramento City 3-0. Cress is ranked second in the state by caccwrestling.com behind Hector Vargas of Mt. San Antonio College. Vargas beat Cress by one point earlier this season. In September, Cress was named the Outstanding Wrestler at the KLS Air Express Invitational.
“It’s going really good,” Cress says about the season. “Training’s great. Coach Siroy and Coach George, they are great coaches. My teammates really push me. They’re really good wrestlers.”
He is also thrilled about the education he’s receiving.
“It’s a great school. I recommend it to everybody,” Cress says about Chabot. “We have the best education system in the world in the United States.”