“You play basketball, you play football — it doesn’t work when you say you ‘play wrestling.’” So sayeth Wayne.
Who’s Wayne? That would be Wayne Branstetter, the winningest coach in the history of California prep wrestling, a man whose program is held in awe by the folkstyle-wrestling cognoscenti. Poway High School is Wayne’s World.
When discussion turns to sports dynasties, certain sports and teams come to mind. Big-time team sports — baseball, basketball, football, sometimes hockey — predominate. Big-city pros and their de facto cousins at mega-universities make the headlines: the New York Yankees, UCLA basketball. No surprises there. But right here in San Diego County, there’s an athletic dynasty that can more than hold its own, even when measured against the usual suspects.
On a sunny, dry, slightly crisp late-December day, I drive up Espola Road, past a succession of upscale horse properties, to Poway High. It’s here, in a leafy, tony neighborhood next to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, that high-school wrestling reaches its apex, not only in California, but, some would argue, in the nation.
The Perry L. Munday Wrestling Center, named for its physician benefactor, sits at the back of campus near the football field. A long building hewn from gray concrete blocks, it’s a shrine of sorts, walls festooned with plaques and awards. While waiting to interview Coach Branstetter after practice, I stand in the foyer, counting wrestlers on the Poway Titan Wall of Fame. I tally 107 guys, starting with Rick Fileman, a 1975 grad, and ending with Victor Lopez, class of 2013. In between are a panoply of California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Masters, State, and Reno Tournament of Champions (TOC) titles and placings.
From the gym proper, a hoarse voice: “Stuff it! Heavy hands, heavy hands.” Clusters of wrestlers listen, then break away to square off in pairs. I peer inside; practice is running late. Surveying the kids grappling on the Munday mats, I’m struck by the diversity of the wrestlers. They range from short, baby-faced kids with nary a visible muscle to a couple of super-sized behemoths who wouldn’t look out of place on a college gridiron roster. When I gingerly step inside, I’m greeted with the smell of sweat, which all but drowns out the scent of perfume wafting from the wrestling moms who stand gabbing and beaming. On the mats, the intensity picks up: a whistle sounds, signaling a one-minute conditioning drill: 60 seconds of frenzied mini-match, where the object is to pin your opponent more times than he can pin you. Just as time runs out, one battle catches my eye. It’s a shorter (but presumably no lighter) kid slamming his taller opponent onto the mat with a thud. Face-down, the tall kid pretends to be hurt, then rises to his feet and gives his partner a grudging high-five.
The first question I ask Wayne Branstetter is “What makes a great wrestler?”
His answer is emphatic: “The mental aspect of becoming a wrestler is far more important than the physical part; I’d say 60–70 percent is mental. When you get to the very highest level [Olympians, national champions]…all other things being equal, if someone has physical, athletic ability like a Michael Jordan, I’d give that person an edge. BUT — a great work ethic is essential.
“The reason I say that is that there’s not a lot of ‘in-between.’ You can just ‘be’ on a football, baseball, or basketball team; but in wrestling, either you like it or you don’t. It’s too physical, too hard. Very physically demanding. You’re in there practicing at least two hours, Monday through Friday, although we’ll back off a little if it’s the day before a tournament. We also have them in class.”
I say to Branstetter, “I’m going to put you on the spot: How important is coaching?”
“Incredibly important,” he says. “I don’t want to downplay any other sport; it’s obviously important to be knowledgeable in any sport you coach. But in this one, it helps to have wrestled.”
I also want to know: Can a young man with mediocre athletic ability excel in wrestling?
“Absolutely. That’s our motto: We take ordinary and make them extraordinary. Because the mental aspect, mental toughness, can make up [the difference].”
Although it’s a team sport — in a sense — wrestling is also the epitome of the personal athletic struggle, an iteration of the ancient mano a mano battle which has existed in various cultural milieus for several millennia. Tough, tenacious, but also technically adept, wrestlers are convinced they’re a breed apart. I quiz Branstetter, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997, on the psychology of grappling.
“It’s kind of our own little fraternity, wrestling. I think that there are certainly some personality traits that make a kid lean towards wrestling: highly competitive, tough, stubborn — that can hurt you or help you.” During his tenure at Poway, Branstetter has broken up his share of fights. “It gets intense. If you have two high-spirited guys, it’s ego.” Off the mats, he says that his charges are the “closest of friends.”
One of Branstetter’s assistants, former Titan standout Justin Woodruff, says, “I don’t think I ‘high-fived’ every kid who beat me. I’d get fired up and want to fight him. I was on the losing end of many fights in high school. The guy would take me down, I’d get fired up and do something cheap and get beat up. But in a sport like wrestling, it’s pretty difficult to hold a grudge, because that guy’s your workout partner. So you gotta figure it out and work through it. Most of these kids are best friends. In practice, you try to instill the competitive fight…but scale it back and keep it within the confines of wrestling…it’s a balancing act…”
Although Branstetter boasts that he can “take an average athletic kid and make him great,” he also notes that some aspiring wrestlers with tremendous innate physical ability wash out of the Titan program. “Some guys are physical giants but mental midgets. Wrestling is very, very technical, a lot more than meets the eye. The average human being who watches wrestling doesn’t see it. Mechanics and physics — it’s an art.”