Until the end of the season, which will likely see multiple athletes from both schools making runs into the state championship tournament, I'll drink it in.

A few years ago, I was asked to have a hand in the pre-event hullabaloo at a big wrestling tournament at Molalla High School. It was during my high school days, and walking into the gymnasium a few minutes before the event started, I didn’t know what to think.

Back then, my only contact with the wrestling team was to brush past the athletes in the hallways, wonder at the funny smell in the wrestling room when we used it to play dodgeball and resolve never to compete in a sport that forced to you wear such tight, strange uniforms.

   Wandering around the mat, expecting the worst, my fears were confirmed. The only thing I really remember was a few heavyweights flexing awkwardly for one another, and after my part was finished, I stepped out of the wrestling world for the next several years.

In college, things were much the same. The wrestling crowd kept to themselves, and though I had some contact because of the high-profile nature of the program and my position at the student newspaper, the contact was limited. I had people tell me about how exciting wrestling was, and simply didn't understand. The stands seemed to be fairly empty, even for a national championship program, and I figured people seemed to share my viewpoint.

Except I was wrong about wrestling. Absolutely wrong.

These last few months have been an exciting journey as the wrestling season has taken off. When I met with JR Jackson, the first-year head coach at St. Helens High School, things started to make sense.

The wrestling room, whose door warns visitors of the fungal dangers on the mats, is a little darker than the gymnasium leading to it. Trophies line the wall facing the door, and plaques bearing the names of successful wrestlers from years past fill the spaces on the walls to the left and right of the door.

Boys of every size and weight filled the room, running in a big oval around the edge of the mats and transitioning seamlessly from one warm up exercise to the next.

When Jackson arrived and we began to talk, my fallacies surrounding wrestling began to dwindle. It’s not just a bunch of sweaty guys in tight uniforms. It’s not an awkward hour of boys rolling around on the mats trying to pin one another. It’s much more than that.

Wrestling, as I was beginning to discover, is more challenging on an individual level than any other sport offered at the high school level. To be successful, and get your name up on that wall, you can’t depend on your teammates. Being bigger and heavier than everyone else isn’t an advantage anymore, and the playing field is truly level.

Because of that, the competition is even. Advantage comes from quickness, from cunning and from the ability to think three moves ahead. Hitting the weight room and bulking up doesn’t always work, as those muscles won’t do a bit of good if you don’t know how to use them.

It takes years of training, a strong mind, constant dedication and a special competitive drive to make everything fit together. And when a wrestler’s fist is raised into the air after a victory, there’s no better feeling.

Maybe it’s because the onlookers at a wrestling dual understand where a victory comes from, and that the feeling when somebody is close to getting a pin is something special. For St. Helens fans especially, with the lights dimmed except for the ones over the mat, the team and the crowd standing and applauding as one, it’s a fairly incredible experience.

That’s why, as a sports fan, I now struggle to see why there are empty seats and I kick myself for taking such a long time to understand the bare-bones of what makes wrestling so captivating.

Unlike many other sports, where you can take a play off, step to the sideline for a rest or get by on natural talent and God-given size and strength, wrestling rewards those who put their nose to the grindstone and go for six minutes against someone who is their equal.

The 100-pound kid who wouldn’t have made the football team could take you or me down in an instant. That guy who isn’t popular with the ladies because he’s a little socially awkward gets to stand in the spotlight with his hands raised in victory.

Its success stories like those that have made me into a wrestling fan, and it’s a pity this season is nearly over. The Cowapa League championships will be over by the time most readers get their newspapers, and the home wrestling duals are finished for the Lions.

Until the end of the season, which will likely see multiple athletes from both schools making runs into the state championship tournament, I’ll drink it in.

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