In St. Helens, wrestling never sleeps, it never stops.
Head coach Greg Gadbois has created a culture where hard work is fun, where guys that grind and put the time into a sport that's demanding as any in the athletic arena are rewarded. It's no surprise that the Lions are on the verge of breaking into the top-10 of the Class 5A level and knocking on the door of Hillsboro and Scappoose, the Northwest Oregon Conference's elites. This program pays the price required to win, not because it's forced to against its will but because it loves the sports, and wants the bounties that come with the success.
At the Class 5A state championship meet at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum last week, St. Helens finished 16th as a team overall with 35.5 points, third-highest amongst all Northwest Oregon Conference entrants. Mavrick Rask (170) and Tristin Buchanan (132) both took home fourth place medals, finishing on the podium just as Gadbois had hoped. Sophomores Gavin Schaer (106) and Narcizo Garza (113) both won state matches and chipped into the team point total. But just 48 hours after the state extravaganza, 15 St. Helens grapplers were back in the weight room, packing on muscle, sharpening each other's strength, armoring up for a busy offseason with an eye toward 2020-21.
"Wrestling isn't a sport, it's more of lifestyle," Gadbois said. "It's the only sport where after practice, you have to starve. You can't eat. When you're a wrestler, you're a wrestler 24 hours a day. You have to run on your own. You have to watch what you eat on your own. Then you go to practice and lift on your own. It's a tight-knit group. Nobody understands what you go through other than your teammates. It's a bond that is unlike any other sport."
Guys like Garza and Schaer who just emptied the gas tank for two days on the biggest stage the state can offer, after a grueling season, didn't hesitate when it came to returning to the dungeon to strengthen themselves and begin the early offseason preparations.
"The reason I like wrestling so much is that you don't have to be good at any other sport," Gadbois said. "You can be the kid that can't catch, the kid who can't run or jump or swim. In wrestling, you can be good if you put in the work. It compares to life. If you want something bad enough and you work hard enough, you're going to get it. It's unlike other sports. If you want to spend the time in wrestling, you'll see the results. You're doing it for the love of it."
Gadbois said both Schaer and Garza lost matches that they both know they can win. They left state anxious to get better and make another trip to the tourney next season. Schaer is young for his age and his grade level as well. Both are underclassmen are self-starters who don't need to be dragged to the gym kicking and screaming. Their ceiling is uncapped when it comes to potential.
"They don't even shave yet," Gadbois said with a laugh. "I won't have to motivate them too much, they'll be self-motivated all summer. They're ready to get back. The reality is we have to learn how to deal with adversity and those guys handled it well. They're ready to move on. They have two more years of this and they're making huge improvements every day, so I'm excited to see what they're going to be."
Rask broke through to the 5A semifinals after being just a match away from the final four bouts a season ago. The junior was tough all season long, especially from the top position. Rask won his first two matches to set up a Saturday morning semifinal bout with Central's Brock Pierce.
"In my opinion, the semifinals are better than the finals…It's its own animal," Gadbois said. "It's make or break for a lot of people. That time, more than any other time, is full of people. It's very emotional. You have coaches yelling at kids in those back hallways. We were excited to get Mavrick in there."
Rask was pinned with 1:15 left in the second period but kept his composure and immediately shifted his focus to fighting for third place.
"The first thing he said was 'Who do I have next? Let's start getting ready for him. Let's start watching the video,'" Gadbois said. "That's what we want. We can't do anything about the past, so let's move on to the future and make the best of what we've got."
Rask tore up West Albany's Brendan Hughes in the consolation semis before losing to Shane Teigen of Thurston. Every wrestler that makes the semifinals goes home on Friday night dreaming of becoming a state champion. The aspiration is close enough to almost reach out and touch. When Rask's dream was curbed early on Saturday, as it was for many semifinalists, there was certainly no shame in defeat. But the Lion had the wherewithal to keep his emotions in check and compartmentalize the loss. Sitting amongst sobbing grapplers who couldn't come to grips with the reality of defeat, Rask was on his phone, watching tape of his next foe.
"You go into a tournament knowing out of that 16-man bracket there is only one kid who is going to feel what it's like not to lose," Gadbois said. "That doesn't mean you're a failure. It just means who is going to handle adversity the best? Those kids that can handle it are the ones that will come out on top more times than the others. That's what we preach. It makes it really easy to coach when we have kids like that."
Buchanan battled back through the consolation bracket after losing in the 5A quarters. The junior won three straight consolation matches to wrestle through to the 132-pound third-place match where he fell by a 3-0 decision. Still, to not give up the fight, to utilize his ability to ride out opponents and score points from the top position in a similar fashion to Rask spoke volumes about the Lion's mettle. Both Buchanan and Rask made state last year but didn't place. Malakie Gibney (132), Ryan Burri (145), Justin Garcia (152) and Dylan Scott (195) all qualified for state and wrestled twice this year.
"The only thing you can ask is that you perform your best at the state meet and I think we did that more times than we didn't," Gadbois said. "We did about as well as we could've done."
The Greco/freestyle wrestling championship is in three weeks out in Oregon City. Some of St. Helens' top kids will go to the national meet, as Buchanan did last year. The Lions will venture around the Northwest before then, scouring the region for tournaments and duals without the pressure of needing to prepare for the regular high school season.
"We'll actually stop cutting weight and have some fun with the wrestling portion of it," Gadbois said with a laugh.
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