The wrestling room at Poway High smells the way a serious wrestling room should smell — like stale sweat, rubber mats, and sour old jockstraps. It’s a distinctive wrestling smell, cultured and cured by years of hard work in a stuffy room without windows. Nonadmirers of the inglorious sport of high school wrestling might consider, in their ignorance, that smell to be offensive. But the wrestlers themselves know otherwise. For them that smell is a kind of tradition passed down to them from heroes they’ve only heard stories about. Intangible but very real, that smell is a subliminal source of pride at least as inspiring as a trophy case stuffed with gold and silver cups, and every day, with every workout, each wrestler makes his own contribution to it.
“I may be excited,” coach Wayne Branstetter was telling his varsity wrestling team. “On Sunday, after I’d looked at the films of the CIF [California Interscholastic Federation] tournament, I had everything I could do to keep myself from calling you guys in for a special practice. I have no doubt you are the best-conditioned, best-trained team in this county. But I have to tell you, if you expect to win that state tournament in two weeks, you’re gonna have to do a lot better than you did at the CIF tournament on Saturday. If you aren’t excited, my being excited doesn’t do any good.”
The team members stared at their feet in silence. It had been a long, tough season, and their hard-nosed coach showed every sign of getting even harder. Every one of them, from the lightweights through the heavyweights, had the gauntly sunken faces, the shortly clipped hair, the darkly circled eyes, and the concave stomachs of serious wrestlers.
There was Terry Watts, a cocky, 129-pound freshman who has been wrestling since he was five and finished second in the national freestyle tournament when he was twelve. Nicknamed “Gumby” because of his inhuman flexibility, he had an almost naive confidence that caused him to believe he could defeat wrestlers older and stronger than himself.
There was Harold Jones, a powerful 193 pounds. One of the most talented athletes in the county, he finished third in the state wrestling tournament last year and recently received a full football scholarship to Cal State Fullerton.
There was John Sargent, a 135-pound senior who seemed too nice a kid ever to be a tough opponent on the mat. But he was smart, and he was self-disciplined, and his record for the year was 38-2.
There was Jesse John, a tenacious 157-pounder who, in spite of an admitted lazy streak, looked and wrestled like the neighborhood bully. He’d only lost one match all year, then later avenged that loss by beating the kid he’d lost to.
There were many other good wrestlers too, but surprisingly, not one single wrestler stood out as superior over the others. Like other Branstetter-coached wrestling teams over the years, they had found their strength and identity by giving consistent team performances.
Out of the twenty-six finalists in the sixteen-school 3-A CIF tournament the previous Saturday, February 22, ten of the wrestlers had been from Poway High. All day long their young coach, who looked lean and fit enough to be a member of the team himself, paced the perimeter of the mats, sometimes watching with an almost eerie expression, as though he were listening to voices from another planet. Then, at other times, he would get down on the mat and twist and contort his own body as if trying to communicate through some kinesthetic telepathy just what he wanted his wrestlers to do. More often than not the message got through, and after the grunting and sweating in the Mira Mesa High gymnasium was over that night, Poway High had won the tournament. Out of the thirteen weight classes, Poway wrestlers were champions in seven of them.
Poway had dominated the tournament, just as they have dominated wrestling in San Diego County for years. In the eight years Branstetter has been at Pbway High, his wrestling teams have never been defeated in dual match competition. Most coaches in the county would have traded their wife, kids, and clipboard for the kind of performance Coach Branstetter was getting from his team. But Branstetter wasn’t satisfied. “Don’t give me just half an effort,” he told his wrestlers, as though he were reading a page out of the high school coach’s book of pep talks. “We only have five more practices before the Masters tournament next Saturday and eight more practices before the state tournament. You’ve worked too hard to give up now.”
Maybe the coach was pushing too hard. Some of the seniors were beginning to show signs of burnout and rebellion. Girls, parties, and spending money were beginning to seem more important than single leg takedowns and double-reverse switches. “Senioritis,” Branstetter called it. Some of the wrestlers were having trouble making weight, and at least one of them, Trace Smith, a good 148-pounder, had been dieting so long he had entered a strange state of mind in which he didn’t seem to be able to concentrate on anything but food. And some of the wrestlers were simply outgrowing the weight classes they had competed in all year.
But the wrestlers weren’t the only ones who had made sacrifices. Coach Branstetter had recruited several of the wrestlers out of freshman P.E. classes and had given them hundreds of hours of his personal time, coaching them during the summer, running them up and down the state to compete in tournaments during the off-season freestyle tournaments, developing them from clumsy little brawlers into skilled and disciplined wrestlers good enough as a team to have a serious shot at the state title. So maybe he had a right to ask a little more of them.
“A high school coach’s situation is kind of ironic,” Branstetter said later in his office. “You make your living teaching another subject — in my case P.E. The school only gives you an $1800 stipend for all the additional time you spend coaching, but in most cases you got the job because of your skills as a coach, and in some cases, if you don’t win, you’re gone. Any coach will tell you the opportunity to win a state tournament comes along once in a great while. I may never have a team with this collective talent again, so not to push them to their limit would be a real shame.” He was looking out for himself, to be sure, but he also knew, in a way his young wrestlers couldn’t, that grown men tend to look back on their high school athletic achievements with an almost corny nostalgia, and that if in the next few days each of them could push himself to his maximum potential, that would be a source of pride for the rest of their lives.
Until just last year, the idea of a San Diego high school wrestling team winning the state title was considered something of a joke. But in 1985 Valhalla High in El Cajon won the state title, mostly on the strength of the two very talented Gerardi brothers, Mark, who placed first in the state, and Vic, who placed second. (As an example of how quirky the state tournament can sometimes be, Poway defeated Valhalla every time they met that year, yet Poway only placed seventeenth in the state tournament.)
Usually California high school wrestling is dominated by the gritty little agricultural towns of the San Joaquin Valley, where boys grow up wrestling with their siblings out on the manure pile and by school age have learned to fight tough or die. During the last ten years, the state wrestling title has been won five times by one of the two high schools in Clovis, California, a grape-picking little cowtown whose only other claim to fame is for being the gateway to Fresno. High school wrestlers in Clovis walk around town hunched over from all the gold medals dangling from their letterman jackets, and even in the hundred-degree summers they would rather die from heat prostration than take those jackets off.
But this winter, when Coach Branstetter was disappointed with the poor level of competition his wrestlers were getting in San Diego County, he took them on the road, to the San Joaquin Valley. His team went undefeated in eight dual matches, and two of their victories were over Clovis High and Clovis High West. That was when the coach first started thinking he had a real contender for the state title.
Perhaps one reason Coach Branstetter has been so successful as a wrestling coach is that he's a country boy himself. He grew up in Montana, where, at the age of twelve, he won the wrestling tournament in the town of Billings. “They gave me a little blue ribbon, and I was hooked for life,” he recalled with a smile. “Here I am now, twenty-three years later and still wrestling.”
Though his parents later moved to Oxnard, California, Branstetter always kept that country boy’s love for hunting and fishing, and, of course, wrestling. After graduating from Chico State, where a recurring shoulder injury prevented him from being as good a wrestler as he thought he could be, he hoped to get a coaching job in Montana. Instead, he was offered a coaching job back in the Oxnard area. He accepted the job, and at age twenty-two, he started the wrestling program at Channel Islands High.
It was a poor, gang-terrorized neighborhood, where many of the kids were troubled with drugs and the most popular after-school activity was varsity graffiti. His wrestling room was one end of the school’s cafeteria, where every afternoon he had to unroll the mats before practice, then roll them up again when practice was over. But wrestling became a popular sport with the boys at Channel Islands, as well as an alternative to fighting in gangs, and Branstetter believes the team’s success was the only thing that kept many of his wrestlers in school. In his first year there, his team placed second in the league, then during the next four years they went undefeated, 49-0.
The cost for success at Channel Islands, though, was that the country boy was burned out by living in what he calls “the concrete jungle,” and he promised himself he would take the first good coaching offer that would get him out of Southern California. “I still wanted to go to either Montana or Oregon,” he said. “But I married a Southern California girl, and after that, there was just no way I could leave.”
In 1978 Branstetter took his Channel Island wrestlers to the state tournament, which was being held at San Diego State that year. While he was there he had a conversation with an old acquaintance, Al Dorris, the wrestling coach at Poway High. “We’d wrestled against Poway teams before, and they were always good,” Branstetter recalled, “but my teams at Channel Islands always beat them. Anyway, Coach Dorris told me he was getting out of teaching. He said he wanted to go into real estate and avocado management, and he asked me if I’d be interested in taking over the team at Poway High.” A few months later, Branstetter moved south with his wife and six-month-old daughter.
Branstetter found the conditions at Poway High to be completely different from the conditions he'd left at Channel Islands — in fact, remarkably better. Instead of street-smart gang members, he found college-bound kids from middle-class families living in a quiet bedroom community. Instead of a cafeteria for a workout room, he found what he describes as one of the best-equipped wrestling and weight training facilities of any high school in California. “Instead of trying to sell pizza tickets to get enough money to buy a wrestling mat, I had parents hand me the keys to their motor home so I could take the team to tournaments,” Branstetter said. The Poway kids might not have had the scrappiness of the young toughs back at Oxnard, but he knew if he could start coaching them young enough, they would learn.
The quality of wrestling in San Diego has rapidly outgrown the public’s understanding of the sport. Maybe the freak-show atmosphere of “big-time” wrestling has forever damaged the image of one of the oldest sports in the world, or maybe the spectacle of one man shoving his nose into another man’s armpit is just never going to be a big crowd pleaser here. Press coverage for high school wrestling can usually be found in the back pages of the sports section, in tiny print next to the fish report. “If we had this Poway team back in Iowa,” Branstetter lamented, “the local paper would be covering our matches move by move. Here in San Diego, hardly anybody notices.” After Valhalla’s Mark Gerardi, one of the finest high school wrestlers in the entire nation, won the state title last year as a sophomore, he received moderate attention by the media. But earlier this year when a girl tried out for her school’s junior varsity wrestling team, she was invited to appear on The Tonight Show, and the local TV stations found her tryout so titillating they made room for.it almost every night for a week on their sports report, right between drugs and big money.
At Poway High, girls don’t try out for the wrestling team. If there were enough girls serious about the sport, Branstetter would probably somehow find the time to start a girl’s team, but for the time being, the closest girls can get to the varsity team is to volunteer as statisticians. These volunteers are called “grapplerettes” at Poway. Other schools call them “mat maids” or “pin pals.” One Poway grapplerette who has a boyfriend on the team said she made the mistake of walking into the wrestling room one day when practice was in session. “Coach made everybody stop wrestling until I left,” she said, then coyly added, “I guess they don’t concentrate too well when there’s a girl around.”
Branstetter learned shortly after his arrival that a successful wrestling program at Poway had to find ways to compete with the beaches, the good weather, girls somewhat more alluring than those found in, say, Clovis, and all the other distractions of the San Diego area. “I know what it takes for these kids to win, and I also know they won’t do it unless the coach pushes them a little bit. Somehow I have to convince them that sweating is more important than going surfing or going over to Suzie’s house.”
Strange as it might seem, Branstetter is able to do that without pushing his wrestlers beyond the point of rebellion. Besides his shrewd and astute understanding of the sport, his ability to motivate his young athletes is perhaps his greatest accomplishment as a coach. His tradition of success has made wrestling a popular sport on the Poway High campus, drawing some of the best athletes in the school. This year, in addition to his thirteen-member varsity team, he had forty wrestlers try out for the freshman team and twenty for the junior varsity. In fact, he has so many boys trying out for his team that, with the help of his assistant coach, Al Torretto, he began holding practice in two separate sessions.
The commitment a high school wrestler has to make to his sport is in a category apart from most sports, and in the indulgent atmosphere of Southern California, their self-denial seems even more severe. Besides the intense and grueling workouts, the wrestlers know they will be most competitive in the lightest weight class they can possibly make, and throughout the season they struggle with one of the most basic animal urges — the desire to eat. To make matters worse, the heart of wrestling season is during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays — the feasting season, when the temptations to abandon a diet are almost maddening for a growing boy. Those wrestlers who manage to resist the temptations enter a purified state of self-awareness only other wrestlers can understand. Sometimes a tearful mother calls up the wrestling coach to say she doesn’t understand her son anymore — he refused to eat a Christmas dinner it took her two days to prepare.
On the Poway team, Trace Smith has had more difficulty making weight than any other wrestler, and he even had to forfeit one match when he couldn't qualify in his usual 147-pound class. His weight varied drastically from week to week, and he once discovered that to make his normal weight class he would have to lose twenty-three pounds in five days. He did it, but with a resulting loss in strength. “I binged and starved, binged and starved,” he said, ‘‘and that’s really hard on you.” He sometimes made weight by dehydrating himself at practice then not drinking any liquids until weigh-in the next afternoon. “I’d maybe take an ice cube to bed with me that night and suck on it till it was gone. It’s kind of bad to get too dehydrated, though, ’cause then you can’t sleep.” When Coach Branstetter saw how much trouble Smith was having making his weight, he took him into his own home for a while and taught Smith the correct way to diet, by eating regularly but in small amounts. ‘‘He watched me like a hawk ” Smith said. ‘‘I couldn’t eat anything without him knowing about it.” After that, Smith didn’t have any more trouble making his weight, and he said he’s never felt stronger.
At wrestling practice, five days after they won the county's 3-A CIF tournament and two days before the Masters tournament in which all the high schools in San Diego and Imperial counties would compete to decide which wrestlers qualify for the state championship, Branstetter had to deliver a hard piece of news to the team. He waited until practice was over so the news wouldn’t ruin their workout, then he gave it to them: because of a technicality, they would have to forfeit their 3-A CIF title. It seems Branstetter had sent Brian Woods, a tall, 147-pound wrestler, up three weight classes to compete in the tournament, and that, according to a poorly worded rule, was a technical violation. The team’s reaction was shock, then disappointment.
On March 1, the day of the Masters tournament at Mt. Carmel High, the Poway wrestling team was in a grim mood. While they waited for their matches, they lounged around the back of the coach's van in the parking lot, eating oranges and candy. “The other coaches must have really had to search the rule book line-by-line to come up with that," one of them said. "It was really a cheap shot."
A wrestler from another school tried to console them by saying, "I think the reason they did that to you guys was because you’d been winning that tournament every year for years. They’re just trying to knock you down a little."
"I’ll tell you what they did," a Poway wrestler said. "They made us even more determined to win this tournament."
By the end of the day, Poway had outscored their nearest opponent, Valhalla, 227 to 161 and had qualified ten wrestlers to go to the state tournament in San Jose the following Friday. That would be the most wrestlers from one high school ever to compete in the state tournament.
One of the peculiarities of high school wrestling fans is that they’re slow to gain interest in the sport, but once they’re hooked, they’re hooked with a fierce devotion seen in few other sports. The scoring system is difficult to understand for the uninitiated, and then there’s that gritty image, not to mention those misunderstood odors surrounding the sport. But the one-on-one intensity and the raw emotion of wrestling make it irresistible to those who take the trouble to understand it. At the Masters tournament, the crowd’s attention was focused briefly on the fascinating spectacle of a father going berserk over his son’s match. Red-faced, neck veins bulging, he was bellowing hoarsely, "Go, Davie! You can do it, Davie!” completely unaware that everyone in the bleachers was watching only him. After Davie won the match and his father was able to pull his emotions together, another understanding father broke the silence by saying, without too much irony in his voice, “Way to go, Davie."
On the morning of Friday, March 7, the preliminary rounds of the state tournament began at Independence High in San Jose. Coach Branstetter and the ten qualifying wrestlers from Poway had flown into town the day before (the plane tickets were paid for out of Poway High’s associated student body fund), and they checked in at the Hyatt Hotel, where they spent a quiet evening conserving their energy for the two-day tournament.
Five of the team members had been to the state tournament the year before, so they knew what to expect, but the other five were somewhat awed by the spectacle they saw that first day. There were eight wrestling matches going on at once, with twenty-five competitors in each weight class representing the best wrestlers from California’s more than 1000 high schools. It was like a carnival, a confusing and somewhat intimidating barrage of school colors, smells, lunatic fans, and wrestling styles. Poway suffered a few early disasters: John Sargent lost a heartbreaker 2-1, and Ray Navarette, Poway’s 168-pounder, was defeated 10-3. But most of the other wrestlers turned in strong performances throughout the day, with the biggest surprise being their 101-pounder, Shane Roselle, who had only placed third at the Masters, winning three straight matches to advance to the semifinals.
At wrestling tournaments, team points are awarded for individual victories. As the tournament progresses from the early rounds into the quarter- and semifinals, each individual victory is awarded more points. With so many schools competing in the state tournament, one team with two or three wrestlers surviving into the semifinals can usually score enough points to place highly or even win the tournament. By qualifying ten wrestlers for the tournament, Poway had to be considered the favorite. But the quantity of wrestlers would do no good if the quality wasn’t there as well.
By the end of the day on Friday, it was clear that the Poway team’s dream of winning the state wrestling title was all but assured. They had scored sixty-nine points and had advanced five wrestlers to the semifinals. The next highest team in the state, El Dorado High, from Placentia, had scored only thirty-five points.
Most of the early matches on Saturday were the consolation matches leading up to the finals, which were held at eight o’clock that night. Two Poway wrestlers had survived the semifinals to make it to the finals, but the rest of the team had scored enough points that the Poway team was announced as the state wrestling champion before the finals even began.
Coach Branstetter was sitting on the sidelines waiting for his first finalist, Jesse John, to compete. He knew the tournament had been won, yet somehow it hadn’t sunk in yet. Everything had gone so perfectly, it almost seemed too easy, after being too hard for so long. There were 9000 people crammed into the auditorium watching the finalists in the lower weight classes put on the finest performance of wrestling skill most of the fans would ever see. Branstetter’s instincts as a coach made him almost envious of all that athletic talent before him. Then he realized, “My god, we’re the best wrestling team in the state,’’ and in that instant everything he’d been working for for so long made sense.
Neither of Poway’s finalists, Jesse John or Harold Jones, won his final match, but in a way, even that made sense to Branstetter because he knew his team had won the tournament in an unusual yet very gratifying way. Without a single weight-class champion, his boys had dominated the tournament. They were team champions who had won with less than dazzling talent, through hard work, discipline, and good coaching.
That night, to celebrate their victory, Coach Branstetter took his team to a nearby pizza joint. On a high school teacher’s budget, winning a state tournament can be a financial disaster — thus the modest celebration. But to the wrestlers, for whom pizza had been a taboo food for more than four months, it was a wildly extravagant feast.
For the next several nights Branstetter, totally exhausted, with a bad cold, slept twelve hours straight, and still he woke up tired. The freestyle wrestling season started in another week or so — in fact, his young freshmen were practically begging him to take them to a tournament that weekend. But the coach hadn’t had a weekend off in months, his wife scarcely knew him, and, dammit, he was beat. Later that week he bought two plane tickets to Hawaii. The 1987 Poway High wrestling team would have to wait.