Wrestling boom

Written by Paul Harder, The Observer December 20, 2013 10:09 am

La Grande’s Alex Kehr takes down the competition in 2012. Kehr, now 10 years old, is part of the growing number of wrestlers in the  La Grande Mat Club. (KATHY GROVER-SHAW photo)
La Grande’s Alex Kehr takes down the competition in 2012. Kehr, now 10 years old, is part of the growing number of wrestlers in the La Grande Mat Club. (KATHY GROVER-SHAW photo)
 

La Grande mat club growing quickly with new system

La Grande as a destination venue? It’s not something that rolls off the tongue, especially in winter. But, for a growing number of people, La Grande is becoming just that because of children. 

The credit goes to the La Grande Mat Club for ensuring that the children come first.  

“We try to run the nicest tournaments,” La Grande Mat Club President Geoffrey Robinson said. “It’s a credit to our board. We’ve all made the decision that we’re not running tournaments to make a profit. It’s just come down to a really motivated group of parents.”

While the tournaments provide the attractive elements for the wrestlers, the structure has been picked apart to make it as straightfoward as possible.

“I think that’s the one area that frustrated parents and kept them from bringing their kids back,” Robinson said. “Now, it’s all streamlined and parents know what’s happening.”

It’s taken time, but the club is seeing the fruits of its labor. Four years ago the club had 30 wrestlers. Now, the participation has grown to around 130 wrestlers ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade. 

The success had been noticed by those in wrestling circles, and people appreciate what La Grande has to offer.

“I’ve had parents from Montana and Wyoming that have talked about moving to La Grande because of the wrestling club,” Robinson said. “When we’re traveling to tournaments out of the state, people know the La Grande name and what it means. 

“They like what we have to offer. The rural lifestyle, but we can compete with the bigger towns in the tournaments.”

Robinson is quick to point out that it takes great coaches to keep the children wanting to come back. The club has tried to find the right fit of fun and still find a way to keep pounding he fundamentals.

Those wrestlers will be on display for the town to see along with all the other Oregon Wrestling Association for Youth teams at 10 a.m. Saturday. 

“It always a great thing to be able to host your own tournament,” Robinson said. “Over the years, the tournament in La Grande has grown to probably be the best around. We make sure that the trophies are nice, and all the champions get a belt buckle to take home too.” Dalton Sheets is one of the coaches that kids really like, and he’s involved coaching the advanced group.

“He just loves coaching kids,” Robinson said. “Dalton is a college-age kid that doesn’t have a son or anything in the program, but loves what he’s doing.

“We have kids that just want to come check out the program. After one practice they’re signed up because he’s electrifying with them.”

Robinson coaches the developmental group. That is the group of wrestlers that are in the third grade and up, but still working on the fundamentals.

“We’ve moved four kids up from my group to the advanced group,” Robinson said. “That’s what most of the kids are working towards. When they’re ready they go up. And, they’re having a lot of success.”

Mat Wolcutt teaches the kindergarten through first grade. Wolcutt was the varsity wrestling coach at La Grande High School.

Parker McKinley coaches the second- and third-graders.

“These guys all have so much knowledge about wrestling and can portray it in a way that sucks kids in,” Robinson said. “If they weren’t having fun, they wouldn’t come back.” 

It also helps that Klel Carson, the current head wrestling coach, and Walt Anderson spend time working with the kids too.

It not only helps bridge the gap between the programs, but adds even more knowledge to the program.

“If  it’s wrestling, and it’s in La Grande, those two guys are going to be there,” Robinson said.

It goes beyond planning for the here and now for Robinson and the board. There planning for the future of the high school wrestling program. 

“It’s hard to think about,” Robinson said. “But, we are already preparing for kids that aren’t born yet. We want Klel to be around in 15 to 20 years coaching kids that are coming up through this program.

“We want to be like the other big wrestling programs with state championship banners on the walls. That all starts with preparation.”

Those wrestlers will be on display for the town to see along with all the other Oregon Wrestling Association for Youth teams at 10 a.m. Saturday. 

Nineteen other teams from around the eastern side of the state, and into Washington, will come to
La Grande.

“It always a great thing to be able to host your own tournament,” Robinson said. “Over the years, the tournament in La Grande has grown to probably be the best around. We make sure that the trophies are nice, and all the champions get a belt buckle to take home too.” 

Robinson was confident in the club’s ability to win the tournament this weekend.

And, like any coach he knows that it’s about the kids who come out of the woodwork during the tournament that help win championships.

“There’s always the core group of kids that you expect to win championships or at least make it to the championship match. But, we wouldn’t even be in the hunt without the developmental kids. That’s what really puts a club over the top. It’s that small group, and whichever clubs group steps up will win the championship.”

Robinson said first-year wrestler Anthony Fitzgerald is one of those wrestlers. 

He also listed Casey Willis, Chance Goudman and Levi Earp.

“I could go on and on,” Robinson said. “But, I think those four could have one of those breakout performances this weekend. They’ve all put in a lot of hardwork like all the kids do. For whatever reason they just seem to be coming along a little quicker right now.”

The tournament, which  will be held at the high school, will replicate the conditions of the Muilenburg Tournament from last week.

“It’s the final piece of that three-prong system that has helped this club grow,” Robinson said. “It starts with the board. Then we need the right coaches. Finally, it’s the incentive to get the kids to want to come back. We do that by putting on an event they want to be a part of.”

The officals will be sanctioned and wearing the offical gear just like a high school event. Bleachers will be pushed back to create that big-time tournament feel.

“We work hard at fundraising to try and make these things happen,” Robinson said. “Everything we get is put right back into the tournament.”