|Now in its 13th year, Noah and Deanna Bertsch have gotten rich off the Pacific Jewel Nationals. Not rich in terms of money - "we don't do it for the money", noted Deanna recently and a look at their bank book from the event would show that the majority of their effort in running the event should be considered volunteerism. Their treasure comes in the form of community support and participation. The Bertschs don't have a martial arts school and their only real connection to the martial arts is through their children's participation. Making it more difficult yet the Pacific Jewel Nationals is run in the Portland, Oregon area - a region that has no local circuit and few tournaments. Yet somehow, they have built one of the most successful martial arts tournaments in the National Black Belt League (NBL). They rely completely upon the good will of those who choose to participate and volunteer and somehow it works. "I think people like to come to our tournament because they know they will be treated fairly and it is a comfortable event", ruminated Deanna when asked how all their support is drummed up. With schools coming back year after year with some bringing 40 or more competitors to the Pacific Jewel Nationals, there is definitely truth to Deanna's statement. And with the Bertschs ready and willing to help out others at their events, their generosity has reaped the benefit of a tournament that draws top competitors and runs efficiently despite all the odds against it.
With an event that is so community-oriented, it was no surprise that it drew many competitors who call the NBL their stomping grounds. Held the weekend of May 9-10, 2008 in Vancouver, Washington (just across the border from Portland), competitors flew or drove from California, Utah, Texas and even New Jersey to participate. And considering that the 2008 NBL Super Grands will be held only a few hours away in Sacramento, California later in the year, many were working to rack up the points needed to assure a complementary seeding at the year-end championships.
Damon Gilbert and Willie Hicks were virtually sired from the loins of the NBL. Gilbert was an NBL sparring champion in the 90s and through 2000-2002 and he cut his teeth coming up in the fighting ranks. Hicks, only 22, also got his start in the NBL on former Team SES earning world titles as a junior and most recently making his name in the adult ranks. Although Gilbert's return to an NBL event after a five year absence was unexpected, he was still embraced (albeit reluctantly at times) by the community that he once called home. This historic backdrop of old-school NBL in Gilbert and the fresh face of Hicks set the stage for the men's sparring grand championship at Pacific Jewel Nationals. Gilbert fought his way through the 35 and older competitors to win the senior grand championship after a not too difficult fight against Kendall Fujii, the 45 and over light weight winner. But he also won the 18-34 super heavyweight division. Gilbert seemed tame in his senior grand champion fight, but against Hicks in the finals for the 18-34 men sparring championship Gilbert was willing to let it all out.
Hicks made his way through the lightweight ranks and defeated Troy Whaley to get into the final round against Gilbert. Oddly enough, Gilbert and Hicks had fought together on Bay Area's Best team during the Friday night mens' team sparring eliminations. However, teammate or no, when the bell rang neither Gilbert or Hicks was giving an inch. The fight started fast with Gilbert using his power to try to dominate the smaller and somewhat faster Hicks. This technique resulted in Hicks being driven right off the stage and almost into our SportMartialArts.com cameras. Hicks returned with more resolve, unwilling to back down from the super heavyweight Gilbert. A 4-1 lead gave Gilbert some confidence as the fight moved into the final minute but Hicks was not out yet and he worked his skills to blitz his way back to a tie at the end of regulation. In overtime, Hicks went for the head with a fast blitz while Gilbert used his defensive side kick which had been working all evening. This time the judges felt Hicks' back fist was first and Hicks got the point and a hard earned grand championship title.
Another home-grown group is making a name for themselves in the NBL - the boys from Frohm's Martial Arts (FMA). This group of young men - Leautry Bruner, Joshua May, Joshua Pittman and Michael Jefferson - were spotted in the junior divisions a few years ago and they were bursting with talent then. Their instructor Ernest Frohm has definitely honed not only their skills but their character as they have all blossomed into great fighters and great kids to boot. The team took top honors at the recent Golden Gate Internationals and made it through the group of eight teams in men's fighting at Pacific Jewel Nationals to face DDX in the finals. During the daytime individual fighting divisions, Pittman of Team FMA really made an impression. He fought like a monster and although he still makes a few mistakes in the ring, he will definitely be a force in the middleweight division this year. And considering how strong the middleweight division is on the West Coast, it is the perfect division for Pittman since it will keep him challenged as he develops.
When Team FMA came to the stage for the night time finals, we fully expected them to also cart along some bags and buckets of ice. The three fighters this evening - Pittman, May and Jefferson - had all suffered injuries during the day time eliminations and were last seen icing down as they prepared for the finals. This evening, FMA faced the more-experienced DDX's line up of Matt Okada, Wade Taylor and Brandon Bertsch. Some beautiful kicks and blitzes by Pittman gave FMA a confident lead of 7-3 after round one. Taylor was determined to get his team back in the running as he faced May in round two. With 22 seconds left, Wade tied the score at 9-9 and then pulled ahead to take a one point lead as time ran out. Bertsch used the step-in reverse punch and back fist to get past the reach of Jefferson's long legs. Then two kicks to Bertsch's head by Jefferson put the score tied at 14-14 in match number three when Jefferson went down with the same leg injury that had plagued him during the day. Jefferson was able to get back up and fight but a quick blitz by Bertsch gave DDX the one point lead that won it all.
The Pacific Jewel Nationals finals opened with drum demo by Ernie Reyes Action Team of Oregon that included lots of tricks and beats and brought some of the competitors from the area together. There were more tricks in store with the junior choreographed forms competition that followed right after. Anthony King has been competing on the NBL circuit for years and he finally got his chance to shine on stage in this competition. However, there were some little powerhouses on his heels. Mackensi Emory was hot off a grand championship win in Canada and was looking for some coast to coast honors as she put everything into her performance and earned two 10s to prove it. Teammate Tyler Weaver was also hot for a win as he rocked the stage. The final performer was Andrew Kowalewski of Team Acura in Idaho but Emory already had it wrapped up and went home with the title.
Weaver was back in the junior choreographed musical weapons grand championship with his kama routine. Weaver's super long thumb spin with his kama and his twisting flips got the crowd going. Last year's grand champion Jordan Simon added some new moves to his 'Welcome to the Jungle' routine and it was well-received. New to the stage, Adam Jolly, had a restart with his sword routine and then nailed his second attempt. Simon is hard to beat and a few 10s from the judges put him way over the top in this competition.
That little Weaver kid is like an energizer bunny - he was back again in the junior Japanese forms grand championship. He faced Mike Spizzuco of New Jersey and Andrew Kowalewski in this round. All three of the boys had great focus and intensity but the strength difference between the older boys and little Weaver was noticeable. Kowalewski's strong stances were pivotal as he took this win. But wait a minute - Weaver was back again - this time in the junior Korean grand championships! This time he faced Jordan Simon and Mike Spizzuco. Unfortunately Weaver could not capitalize in this round as Simon won his second grand championship title for the evening but Weaver showed his tenacity and good sportsmanship throughout the entire finals.
After winning almost every men's contemporary forms divisions, Joshua Durbin clearly had the advantage in the adult contemporary forms grand championship. In fact, if he didn't win with his two chances, it would be quite the defeat. His challengers were Roark Hodson, winner of the soft style division and Ashley Davies, another Unison talent like Durbin, representing the women's divisions. Durbin managed to throw himself around the stage like a piece of giraffe meat and although Davies had to stifle a few laughs right before she performed, once she started she was all serious as she worked to defeat Durbin with her hard style creative form. Hodson received two 10s to put Durbin at risk. But Durbin retaliated with his own 10 and more 9.99s than Hodson. Durbin looked befuddled as he tried to add up all the numbers. In the end, it was a tie between Hodson and Durbin which meant the judges had to point at the competitor they thought should win and 4-1 voted for Durbin.
We thought we'd seen the last of him but Durbin was back again in the adult contemporary weapons grands along with Roark Hodson, Jerico Catura and Ashley Davies. This time Durbin decided to display his diversity and use kamas rather than his normal bo routine. But Durbin doesn't know the meaning of diversity like Jerico Catura who whipped out the TONFA for his routine. Durbin and Catura were so focused on each other, they didn't notice little Ashley "Mocha" Davies sneaking in with her bo routine (sans shirt) to take the win. We expect to see Durbin and Catura in tank tops in their next grand championships as they challenge the power of Mocha.
Davies showed that she has even more diversity than Catura and Durbin combined when she jumped up on stage to fight in the women's sparring grand championships. She faced Kenzie Yadao. Davies had some great footwork and offensive kicks that put her in the lead early in the match. Despite Yadao's quick offensive hands, she didn't use them enough to defend herself and Davies was able to build up an 11-4 win.
Did you know that Scott Wu knows a kenpo routine? Yeah, we didn't know either but he does and he won the adult kenpo division along with the men's Japanese division. Wu was first up in the adult traditional forms and weapons grand championship. Ervic Aquino with his traditional bo, Jerico Catura with his Korean routine and Ashley Davies performing both Korean and Japanese routines were also in the mix. Although Wu's Kenpo did not have the chi strong enough to win, his Japanese performance was the judges' favorite.
As with all NBL finals, the juniors got a chance to get up on stage and rumble with featured final matches in continuous sparring and point sparring. We checked back stage to determine if the Bertschs had set up a table full of cookies, pure sugar and Mountain Dew for the kids going on stage for these sparring competitions. The kids were at the peak of excitement for the chance on stage and they went nuts like a bunch of hopped up spider monkeys when the bell rang.
Chance Maxwell v Bernadette Escalada - Both of these flyweight continuous competitors are from Team Alchemy of Texas which is no surprise since coach Laco Villanueva produces excellent fighters. Despite being teammates, Chance and Bernadette went after each other with a vengeance and ended the first half of the match with a one point difference with Chance in the lead. Bernadette came back in the second half to win 32-23.
Ryan Clark v Damian Fullmer - Fullmer wore a rarely seen shorts outfit as he faced Canadian Clark for the the featherweight continuous title. Fullmer seemed the more active of the fighters but Clark was more accurate. Clark turned his 3 point half time deficit into a decisive 42-32 win.
Alex White v Karl Bettencourt - Bettencourt came off the line like a rocket, smacking White with round kicks to the head to go up by 23 points after the first half of this boys' middleweight continuous fight. In the second half, Bettencourt didn't back down, providing some fine footage for the video togs in the audience. The final score was 46-11 for Bettencourt.
Andrew Kowalewski v Connor Cordova - Cordova had the legs in this boys' light heavyweight continuous match up but Kowalewski had heart and stayed in the fight, working his counters. Cordova's feet connected too many times in this match and Cordova walked away with a 62-30 win.
Helen Lewis v Amanda Bogen - In the girls' lightweight continuous division, Lewis must have downed about 50 cookies and some Red Bull backstage because the kid was so hyped up she couldn't stop moving. The cheers from her teammates in the crowd spurred her on and she went crazy when the bell rang. At the end of the first half, Lewis was up 53-34 and despite being tired, she used the cheers from the audience like a shot of caffeine and continued her assault on Bogen in the second half to finish 103-76.
Nicole Grabe v Breanna Smedley - Sorry but no one could top the enthusiasm of Lewis even though Grabe and Smedley tried in the girls' middleweight continuous sparring finals. These two were evening matched and had some distance issues that resulted in some ineffective kicking. In the end, Grabe pulled ahead to win 48-41.
James Gilbeaux v Jose Bettencourt - Gilbeaux's slight frame moved around the ring like an expert in this 12-13 boys' point sparring finals. Gilbeaux was the first to attack and scored with a round kick and later a beautiful ax kick while Bettencourt wouldn't commit to any plan of attack throughout the fight which lead to not doing much. Gilbeaux finished with a 4-1 win.
Stephanie Rosales v Jessica Russell - In the 13-14 girls' point sparring competition Rosales, another Team Alchemy prodigy had footwork that put her at a distinct advantage over Russell. Russell found herself too squared up as she moved around the ring and despite Russell's strong punches, Rosales was able to land the kicks and blitzes needed to win 5-2.
Daniel del Valle v Karl Bettencourt - Another Team Alchemy player in the 14-15 boys' point sparring finals, del Valle, had the size advantage over Bettencourt but Bettencourt had been well schooled in fighting larger opponents. The two were quick on their feet and although del Valle had the reach advantage, Bettencourt had great fakes and speed. Bettencourt suffered a back injury partway through the match but continued on as the match went into overtime. del Valle used surprise to his advantage to spring across the line and land a back fist to win 4-3.
At the end of the finals, there was a raffle and lots of prizes handed out to the audience to conclude the tournament and time to reflect on the happenings of the weekend. "I really like this event," was literally a comment overhead by this reporter while covering a ring on Saturday afternoon. A group of coaches and competitors were talking as they waited to compete and the subject turned to the event itself. These types of unsolicited statements show that whatever the Bertschs are doing, they are definitely reaching their goal of creating an event that is well-liked and that brings the competition community together.