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Wrestling With a Problem : Big Success Stories Belie the Fact That the Sport Is Lacking at Most State Schools

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two years of unfulfilled potential were enough for Ty Wilcox.

A promising wrestler stuck on a struggling team at Nevada Union High in Green Valley, Wilcox and his parents searched for a school with a dedicated program.

Their search ended 500 miles away at Santa Ana Calvary Chapel. Nearly two years, a state individual title and an 89-1 record later, Wilcox couldn’t be happier.

And he’s not the only happy traveler.

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Carlos Blanco moved from Victorville to Moreno Valley two years ago and enrolled at Canyon Springs, which has a top wrestling program. He has gone 80-0 since and won a state title last season at 125 pounds.

Such success stories are rare, however. Only about half of the high schools in California offer wrestling, leaving aspiring athletes in the sport with limited opportunities.

At Rosemead, five wrestlers will compete in the state-qualifying Southern Section Masters meet Saturday at Fountain Valley. Two of Coach Louie Madrigal’s wrestlers, Hector Torres and Mike Noriega, have legitimate shots at winning state championships.

Down the road at Arcadia, however, there is no wrestling program, even though the school has an enrollment of 3,100.

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Neither does South Gate, which has one of the largest enrollments in the state with 4,200 students. But at nearby Bell, wrestling is one of the school’s most popular sports. The Eagles have won three City Section titles in the last four years and are favored to win their fourth title Saturday at Bell.

The sport fares a little better in Northern California, where a higher percentage of schools offer wrestling and league meets often draw thousands of fans. But in Southern California, wrestling is the third-lowest participatory boys’ sport, trailing even golf.

The disparity is far worse in the City Section, where only 16% of the schools offer wrestling. Of the 10 sports offered in the section, wrestling is the least popular.

Those involved with wrestling say the coach makes the difference in having a successful program.

Calvary Chapel is a private school with 300 boys. Yet the school has been the most successful in California in the 1990s, winning three team state titles in the last four years. The Eagles have produced seven individual state champions and nine athletes who have earned full college scholarships.

Calvary Chapel competes before standing-room only crowds wherever it goes. More than 2,500 fans turned out this season for a meet against at Temecula Valley, another of the area’s most successful programs.

Coach John Azevedo, a former state champion from Modesto and a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, started the program at Calvary Chapel eight years ago.

“Wrestling is not a glamorous sport,” said Azevedo, who has 11 wrestlers competing in the Masters meet. “Kids don’t see it on TV every week, and not a lot of them get involved in it until junior high or high school. When they finally decide to try out for the sport, they have no idea what they’re getting into.

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“It’s not at all what people think,” he said. “It takes a great deal of dedication to be a wrestler. You don’t play wrestling. You play basketball and baseball.”

Wrestling requires unusual conditioning and dieting.

Calvary Chapel’s Tino Archuleta, for example, starts his day by jogging five miles. He practices for at least two hours after school and then runs another five miles when he gets home. To stay in or below his 125-pound weight class, Archuleta follows a strict diet of low-fat and high-carbohydrate foods, such as fruits, vegetables, pasta and chicken.

“Wrestlers are the best conditioned athletes in high school,” Archuleta said. “Every day is the same grueling routine, and if you want to be the best, you have to try harder and harder every day. Most kids don’t have that kind of discipline and desire.

“I think wrestling is the best high school sport because it’s the only one where size can’t be held against you. No matter how small you are, you can still compete and be the best.”

A team is made up of 14 wrestlers ranging from weight classifications of 103 pounds to heavyweight.

Why then is a sport that offers even the little guy a chance to compete not being offered at more schools?

“It’s a combination of a lack of facilities and finances and the availability of coaches who are knowledgeable and understand the ramifications of coaching such a time consuming sport,” said Bill Clark, Southern Section assistant commissioner.

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Another stumbling block is the time of year the sport is offered. Wrestling competes with the Southland’s most popular sport, basketball, and the fastest-growing sport, soccer, which has experienced a 12% increase in participation in the last three years.

The biggest problem remains coaching. The matter is further complicated in the City Section, where head coaches must also be credentialed teachers.

Garfield Athletic Director Otis Yette searched three years to find a qualified wrestling coach to start a program. He enlisted the help of veteran Bell Coach Frank O’Conner, who was unable to find anyone to meet the standards of the job.

“I couldn’t find anyone qualified,” said O’Conner, who started the wrestling program at Bell seven years ago. “I found teachers, but they weren’t wrestling coaches. And I found wrestling coaches, but they didn’t have their teaching credentials.”

No wrestling program means no athletic participation for some students and long layoffs for others.

“I wrestled at Montebello as a freshman, and when I transferred here my sophomore year I expected to wrestle after the football season,” said Garfield senior Ricardo Calderon, a starting tight end on the football team. “I miss the competition. Being a football player, wrestling was a natural transition for me after football ended. I was hoping wrestling would help keep me in shape for football.”

Another problem is the small amount of money being offered to the few qualified coaches. The coaching stipend in the City Section is $1,100 per season and between $1,000 and $2,000 in the Southern Section.

Coaches dedicated to wrestling say the competition is far more gratifying than the compensation, however.

“I spend over $2,000 a year out of my own pocket for wrestling, so the money isn’t the issue,” said Madrigal, who has coached at Rosemead since 1986. “It’s a great sport because you can be an excellent wrestler without being an excellent athlete. The kids that are willing to work their butts off make themselves into great wrestlers. And size can never hold a kid back.

“It’s a shame it’s not offered at more schools. If the administrators really wanted to have a program, they’d do the things necessary to have one,” he said.

The fortunate ones, like Wilcox, say the sacrifices are worth it.

“Five hundred miles was a small distance to travel in order to train with the best,” said Wilcox, who is 52-0 this season at 160 pounds and will attend Oklahoma State on a full scholarship in the fall. “I’ve been wrestling since I was 7, and I needed to find the level of coaching to bring me up to the next level.

“It was the best move I’ve ever made,” he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Who’s Playing

There are 1,207 high schools in California. Below are the number of schools and athletes that compete in various boys’ sports:

Sport, No. of Schools: Students

* Basketball, 1,035: (36,897)

* Baseball, 980: (36,727)

* Football, 906: (79,605)

* Soccer, 879 :(30,727)

* Track and Field, 838: (34,145)

* Cross Country, 818: (15,914)

* Tennis, 741: (14,046)

* Wrestling, 652: (20,894)

* Golf, 651: (8,562)

* Swimming, 599: (12,667)

* Volleyball, 456: (10,687)


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