The first high school wrestling match I ever attended is burned forever in my memory.
A friend had graduated to the West Valley varsity and, not having anything better to do, I decided to attend his debut and cheer him on for the, I was sure, 20 or 30 seconds it took him to get pinned.
Yes. I admit it. I was a teen-aged cynic.
I walked into the gym during the junior varsity matches. In particular, it was the 101-pound match and a kid named OK Connett was getting dominated by his opponent. Connett was always a cocky little guy in class, and you could tell he didn’t like being manhandled and having someone beat him with a double-digit decision. But in the final 20 seconds of the match he fired up out of a hold and managed an escape. In my memory, that single point was his first of the match. But I don’t remember checking the scoreboard to be sure. Good thing, because he then pulled off the coolest move I have ever seen on a wrestling mat.
As he pulled his leg free he ran across the mat with the momentum of the escape. But he didn’t stop. In fact, he gained speed as he rounded the outer edge of the mat and charged his surprised opponent. At full speed, he dropped his shoulder and executed a perfect tackle, taking the guy straight to his back. Connett wrapped up the guy’s legs as he hit the mat and before your jaw could bounce off the floor he had the guy pinned.
It took just seconds to execute, and there were folks who attended the match who never saw it because they looked away to check their watch.
And it immediately made me a wrestling fan.
One of my favorite quotes about sports is from, depending on who you believe, either UCLA basketball coach John Wooden or sports writer Heywood Hale Broun: “Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.”
From that standpoint, wrestling doesn’t just reveal character, it dims the lights and puts character under a spotlight for all to see and examine.
If you wrestle, everyone who cares to watch is going to discover just how much competitive instinct resides in you. They will know just how deep your mental and physical reserves are. For some, they will know exactly where your breaking point is, and they will see how quickly you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the game after you have your heart ripped out by a crushing loss.
It’s not just a sport. It can be equal parts drama and melodrama, comedy and tragedy.
It is a sport in which its greatest champion, Dan Gable, points to an upset loss to the University of Washington’s Larry Owings in the 1970 NCAA Finals as the impetus for making him the great champion he became.
West Valley wrestling made it easy to be a fan in the mid-1970s. The late, great Steve Gannon was on his way to winning his first national championship at North Idaho College by the time I got there, but his brother, Glen, was a standout and the Class of 1975 had some excellent talent. Brad Hastings. Kenny Pazer. Terry Jolley.
The Eagles have been good at times over the years since Charlie Miller left Millwood to coach at East Valley. But they’ve had more years of struggle.
Geoff Hensley is now in the second year of his second tour as the school’s wrestling coach, and his excitement about this season is a balm for alumni who still remember the glory years.
East Valley and University have long been state wrestling powerhouses, with coaches Craig Hanson and Don Owen both considered among the sport’s elite. Central Valley, too, is a regular challenger for the Greater Spokane League title and the Bears’ coach, Shaun Williams, earned three state championships during his tenure at Hermiston High.
West Valley is enjoying something of a renaissance. Having a football program turn into a perennial state power has been a huge springboard of that swelling dose of Eagle Pride, but it’s been a well-tended experiment in growing a culture of accomplishment.
When football struggled as the smallest school in the Greater Spokane League, boys basketball under Jamie Nilles was the one program that was able to compete successfully on the bigger school stage. Now that he’s the school’s athletic director, he’s taken pains to plant the seeds of Eagle Pride.
The freshmen coming into the WV practice room are excited about donning a black and orange singlet and representing the school in a match. Whether they win or lose, even if it means taking their lumps against more experienced competition.
“There is something to be said for being a one-high-school district,” Hensley said. “This is definitely one of them.”
Don’t look away, wrestling fans. Keep your eyes on these Eagles.
Something exciting is about to happen.
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