Hard work paying off for Grizzlies

The turnout was predictably low, and it's no secret that the words "Ashland High wrestling" don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of grapplers across the state of Oregon.

But when Tony Champion first got a look at what the Grizzlies could do on the mat, he was stunned.

There was Jake Scarminach, the starting quarterback for the football team and the youngest state semifinalist in the 160-pound weight class last year. And Christian Ostmo, who was voted the most outstanding wrestler at the 2010 Southern Sky Conference district meet. And Sam Cowan, who Champion calls "by far the most physically dominant wrestler in the state of Oregon right now."

Champion, Ashland High's first-year assistant wrestling coach, saw the potential immediately, and now he's busy trying to squeeze the most out of it.

"Believe it or not, on this team we actually have the potential to have two or three state champions ­— this year," Champion said. "People say, 'Ah, you gotta be kidding.' But it's 100 percent true."

If those words were spoken by somebody else, they might not carry the same weight. But Champion knows a little something about success on the wrestling mat, and what it takes both mentally and physically.

In 1987, Champion transferred from Ashland High, where he spent his first three years of high school, to Eagle Point, where he became the 191-pound state champion and helped the Eagles overpower the rest of the field to take the team title.

His success continued at Portland State, where Champion won three straight NCAA Division II national championships at 177 pounds and helped the Vikings capture two team titles.

After that, Champion moved to Kansas City, Mo., and put down roots, starting a mortgage company and a family.

He returned to Ashland last year, but had not definite plans to coach at the high school level until his wife one day suggested applying for Ashland's head coaching job.

"I said, 'Hon, Ashland doesn't have a wrestling team,'" Champion said. "'They cancelled that in 2000 or something.'"

Actually, Ashland did have a wrestling team, and when he discovered that Champion applied for the job. By then, Bill Bowers had already been named the school's next head wrestling coach, a position he's held before. The two met shortly thereafter, and it was during that initial meeting that Bowers realized what the Grizzlies were in for.

"At first, I thought it might be a little intense for high school," said Bowers, who coached Champion in high school. "But one thing that we both agreed on was really just teaching the basics of wrestling. They don't need all this fancy stuff. You need a couple good takedowns, a couple good escapes, a couple good pinning moves, how to ride a guy, and it's done. Forget about all that fancy stuff that gets you into trouble. Let's go over the basics, and repetition."

So that's what they've been doing — hammering home the fundamentals over and over again during exhausting 1 1/2 —hour practice sessions designed to push the Grizzlies to their limits. Occasionally, Bowers or Champion will gather the team — nine wrestlers showed up for Tuesday's practice — for a demonstration, or a pep talk, or a combination of the two. Then, it's back to work.

During Tuesday's practice, Champion, still built like a formidable wrestler with broad shoulders and a low center of gravity, called the Grizzlies together to talk strategy, when the subject of last weekend's performance at the Bend tournament came up. There, three Grizzlies advanced to the finals; two won.

"Every tournament, I'm seeing less and less mistakes," Champion says, "and that's what matters, that we don't beat ourselves."

Later, after the Grizzlies broke into sparring pairs, the team circles up again for a lesson on the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. In wrestling, a shot is the act of lunging toward a competitor in an effort to gain control.

"If you take a bad shot, get out of it," Champion explains, still catching his breath after a bout with Scarminach. "Bring your head up, get out. Don't over commit to a shot. If we stay there, we're going to get taken down."

The Grizzlies listen intently, nod their heads, then pair up again and practice what they've just learned.

The hard work has already paid off in tournaments, which could translate to success at the upcoming district and state meets. But when it comes to the big picture, Bowers admits, there is still plenty of work to be done. The current team may indeed make a splash in a few weights at the district tournament, to be held Feb. 11-12 in Eugene, but what will it take to make the Grizzlies a team title contender?

More wrestlers, for starters, explains Bowers. With 13 grapplers on the roster, the Grizzlies typically forfeit five matches in dual meets because they lack wrestlers in those weight classes. With seven seniors, the number of forfeits will go up next season unless Bowers and Champion can track down some new recruits.

"We've got to get a junior program going," Bowers said. "Starting with the kid wrestling through the junior high school program and just be consistent there — offer the community something it really hasn't had. Every successful program out there has the feeder program and we don't. So that's something we're definitely going to work on."

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