La Cañada High wrestling turns to alumnus Justin Luthey

After La Cañada High wrestling lost its coach, who had more than a decade of history with the program, the Spartans turned to a familiar face.

Justin Luthey, who wrestled under and assisted alongside last year’s coach, Gavin Williams, has been tabbed to take over the program after being approved at a La Cañada Unified School Board meeting Tuesday night.

“We’re fortunate to have somebody that knows La Cañada, knows the kids, knows the culture,” La Cañada High Athletic Director Craig Franzen said. “Also, the fact he’s worked with Gavin gives us a little bit of continuity with the program.”

Luthey graduated from La Cañada in 2007 and St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where he wrestled and played football, with double majors in economics and ancient studies in 2011. He received his master’s degree in sports management from Cal State Long Beach earlier this year.

The 24-year old wasn’t away from the Spartans long, as he served as an assistant coach on the football team from 2008-11. In addition to wrestling, he was an assistant track and field coach last year.

“He’s done the next level and understand what it takes and he’s very committed,” said Williams, who stepped down to spend more time with his family and newborn daughter, of Luthey. “When he was on the team he was a leader. He understands what commitment it takes. He brings in a great work ethic.”

It’s all been luck on how things fell into place for the program, Williams said.

“He wasn’t supposed to or expected to be my assistant coach, having him show up when he did and volunteer his time and energy was just a very lucky bonus I couldn’t have expected or counted on,” Williams said. “The school really went out of its way to make sure we got a coach. He had some interest and they called him. There’s not a lot of people that can or want to coach wrestling for the pay.”

Luthey’s motivation to take over the team was to keep the wrestling program, to which he won three Rio Hondo League championships as a heavyweight, progressing.

“I wanted to come back and help out my high school,” said Luthey, who’s also the defensive line coach and director of football operations and recruiting at Occidental College. “My main goal when I [applied] wasn’t out of an ego or anything, I wanted the program to have a coach that will take it to the next level.”

Luthey was quick to praise Williams, who started coaching the Spartans in 2001, for what he’s done for wrestling at La Cañada.

“Gavin has done things great there,” Luthey said. “The program has really gone to the next level and that’s because of him. Thanks to him, we got our own wrestling room and own sixth period class. We didn’t have those things before.”

Coming off consecutive Rio Hondo League titles, the Spartans settled for second behind a San Marino squad stacked with freshmen talent and an elite co-coach in John Azevedo last year. The Rio Hondo League also added two new teams in Hoover and St. Paul for the 2012-13 season.

“There was a changing of the guard,” Luthey said of how the top of the league has been shaken up in recent years. “When I wrestled, Monrovia was the dominant team and we were all catching up to them. Now it’s San Marino, they’ve done some good things with that new group.”

Individually, La Cañada sent nine wrestlers out of its league tournament to the CIF Southern Section Eastern Division Championships. Four of those individuals won league titles, including returning senior heavyweight Guillermo Padilla, who advanced to Masters and state. Alex Bache, a 170-pounder last year, is another league champion set to return for the Spartans.

First step toward progress will be hard work for Luthey. In his first season, he doesn’t have a list of specific goals, like league championships, CIF Southern Section Masters or CIF State meet success.

“Those things are more of an outcome,” Luthey said. “If you do things the right way, those will come. I want the guys to wrestle tough and when they leave the mat to know they left it all out there.”

In order to achieve that, Luthey has first set his sights on revamping practices for a winter season that will begin in late December.

“Because it’s what I know, these practices are going to be a lot like my college wrestling practices,” Luthey said. “I told [Franzen] in my interview, the main thing I am trying to bring to this team is toughness. Both mental and physical toughness and our practices will be harder because of that. I wrestled in the mid-West and I want to bring that mid-West attitude and a blue-collar work ethic.”

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