The Gonzaga Prep gymnasium was filled for the wrestling match with a raucous standing-room-only crowd cheering on its unbeaten Bullpups.
Yet conspicuous on the white wall where Bullpups team championships are listed for various GSL sports was a void below the wrestling heading, made even more conspicuous by its position next to the oft-titled football program.
The fact was not lost on Gonzaga Prep wrestling coach Phil McLean.
“Every day when I walk into the gym, I see that big blank space,” he said. “Every day, I’m reminded of it. I think the kids are, too.”
Last Thursday’s overflow audience sensed history in the making for McLean and his Bullpups, whose come-from-behind victory over Central Valley moved them closer to erasing the visual evidence of past failings.
The magnitude of what McLean and his wrestlers have accomplished in his six years as coach has not been lost on the wrestling community.
Except for a brief period under Clarence Hough in the late 1980s, Gonzaga Prep wrestling has not experienced such excitement.
The 29-year-old McLean is changing that.
He has approached his charge the way he had earned three state championships as a competitor, the youngest of six brothers who earned 10 state places while competing at Deer Park - by stressing high standards, hard work and sound technique.
He was hired as coach before he graduated from college.
“Dean Largent (his coach at Deer Park), called me about him,” said Prep principal Al Falkner, who was then the school’s activities coordinator. “He said he might be a good person to talk to. Phil was finishing up at Fresno State and on the verge of graduating.”
What they thought were a couple of hours to be completed at Eastern Washington University turned out to be more. But the school was impressed enough with McLean to hire him in 1990 while he was still attending school.
A teaching opening at Gonzaga in English and communications coincided with his graduation.
Largent had recognized McLean’s coaching potential, not only because of the work he put in to win three titles between 1983 and 1985, but because of his charisma.
“Phil had a magnetism,” said Largent. “Everyone in school looked up to him. Not only the students, but also the teachers thought highly of him.”
The wrestling room, carved out of a storage area below Gonzaga Prep’s second gym, is a hubbub of activity.
McLean’s timing was right in this instance, too. Initially, the wrestling team practiced in the school cafeteria.
Development of the new room, which is also used now for weight training and for batting cages during baseball, coincided with his hiring.
From an initial turnout of 17 wrestlers, McLean’s practice area is now filled with 65, only six of them seniors.
All are paired up, doing takedown drills to pinning moves and the related counters, working from the mat and practicing a variety of cradles. It is that attention to detail that characterizes the McLean-coached Bullpups.
McLean built his program in two ways. Unlike other schools, Gonzaga had no feeder program in the Catholic elementary schools.
“The first thing I did was start a parochial program,” he said. “It was slow at first, all the kids played basketball and no one wrestled. Now it’s really picked up to the point where kids expect it.”
This year’s freshman team is a product of his youth program. It is 5-1 in dual competition after winning only twice in all the seasons combined prior to this.
McLean also was adept at recruiting students for his team.
Said Falkner, “I’ve never seen anyone better than Phil at getting into the halls and attracting people, even kids who haven’t wrestled.”
Dave Rucker is a senior 190-pounder who quit three days into practice his freshman year. When he came back as a sophomore he told McLean he’d never quit again. As a senior, he’s been instrumental in Gonzaga’s 6-0 season.
“Phil puts us through rigorous training every day and mentally, before a match, he completely relaxes us,” Rucker said. “Every year he sets goals for us, and weekly we try to fill them. I’m going to miss the program.”
That, said Falkner, is another of McLean’s strengths.
“He has a real gift to be able and challenge kids and also be positive with them,” said Falkner.
And wrestlers who have stuck with the program are seeing the results of their work.
Last year, Dan Short, one of the league’s better 168-pounders, was pinned in 30 seconds by CV’s Rick Giampietri and by Mead’s Beau Chandler. This year, his only league loss was 4-0 to Giampietri and he beat Chandler by technical fall (15 points).
Prep has had six state placers since 1992. Last year, the Bullpups had their first state champion, Cory Brannon, and runner-up, Steve Steigleder.
Gonzaga Prep wrestlers are a personification of McLean’s philosophy.
“It wasn’t natural ability, he just had incredible desire,” said Largent.
McLean went on to wrestle at North Idaho College, where his coach John Owen stressed technique, and at Fresno State.
“Even if he’s not a great athlete, it doesn’t matter,” said McLean. “One thing a wrestler will do, if he leaves the room, he could coach. He will learn the sport of wrestling and technique.”
Gonzaga is a win away from a share of its first GSL championship. Tonight, the Bullpups wrestle North Central. Next week, they finish the season against University.
Both matches are at home, where last week the team performed in front of a capacity audience.
“We’ve never had to close the doors before,” said Falkner. “We’re at a whole different level, now.”
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