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Poway High School wrestler Richard Durr

“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?”

Head coach Wayne Branstetter reviews holds with 106lb class wrestler Manny Lair

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.”

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Comments

stupidflanders19 Feb. 29, 2012 @ 4:52 p.m.

Victor Richmond is a jealous little man. Poway High's C team can wipe the mat with Mt Miguel's A team and has been doing it for 30 years. I bet the 8th grade wrestling team at Twin Peaks middle school in Poway would give them a run. If you can't win by trying, then start crying. Loser

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Oldwrestler March 2, 2012 @ 5:58 a.m.

I have to say, that I loved the article. I know Coach B very well, in fact I was a member of his very first team that he ever coached in '73-'74 at Channel Islands HS in Oxnard, Ca. I wasn't the best by any means, but I greatly improved with him as our coach. He taught us life lessons, although we did not know it then. I graduated the following year, '75 and went on to join the Navy and wrestled and officiated for several years while on active duty. After retiring, I got into coaching our local HS and Middle School's teams until retiring in '05. I still stay in touch with Coach and his wife as well as several other old team mates. If anyone ever accused him of any wrong doing, just does not know him as well as those of us who have had the great pleasure of being on the mat with him. When he does retire, I will be there. With the Greatest Respect, William Moore, Monmouth, Maine aka: Oldwrestler

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Greco_Star March 2, 2012 @ 11:29 a.m.

It never gets old but Poway has a reputation of being Cry Babies. For Example: When I used to help coach Fallbrook after coming from one of the powerhouses back East, we had a great 215 pounder who was called the "Experiment" that was wrestling in a tournamnet that included Poway. During the seeding process, All of the Poway coaches were trying to get their kid in a better seeding by knocking our guy down in the brackets. The Head coach and I just sat there smiling, we did not care where our kids were seeded because if you were "Truely" the best then who cares whether you are seeded or not? The Asst coaches were yelling to get our guy to be seeded lower. I stood up and said to each and everyone of them in a low whisper, "See you in an open tournament, may God have no mercy on you, cause I will not" I not only whipped one but two of the Asst coaches in one tournament, The Head coach "B" would not even look at my direction. Ask anyone up North about Poway and just see them shake their heads.

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1happyguy March 4, 2012 @ 1:12 p.m.

I am not sure your point has to do with 'cry babies" Congratulations on winning the matches, but coaches should be advocates for their players. I am sure what you said is correct, but is pointless. I didnt go to Poway, and I live in North County, I dont shake my head. I am actually proud that someone in SD challenges Bakersfield and Clovis. I am actually happy that parents raise money, and get their kids involved early in wrestling. I personally know it takes some hard work and dedication to build a program like that, and it is obvious everyone else is struggling to do it, and crying because they cant.

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1happyguy March 4, 2012 @ 1:08 p.m.

What a great article. I wish more kids thought of wrestling as a sport option. I applaud Poway for building such a dynamic program. In fact, most other coaches should also applaud and wish they had a program like this, so it would help evolve the sport. Additionally, I am sure there is some truth to some of the coaches complaints, but 99% is probably just jealousy. This is sad because they are suppose to be coaches, leaders, mentors, and role models for our kids. I think some of those coaches mentioned, shouldnt be coaches. Great Job Poway and Wayne...Sounds like you deserve all of the success you are earning!

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jdboone March 6, 2012 @ 9:16 a.m.

pretty tough to name a state champ that wasn't home grown and made his way up the ranks starting in Slammers

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SILVERBACKSWRESTLING March 28, 2012 @ 11:26 a.m.

I believe in the Homegrown Phenomenon... especially, when my teammates and I from 96-99 were fierce rivals with Calvary Chapel and hated them for recruiting...Why would we do the same? In fact we made it our Poway Slogan in 99 "Poway Homegrown," because of the ridiculous recruiting by teams like Calvary, St. Edwards, Blair Academy (all were private schools and could recruit). On the other hand, we (Poway Wrestlers) with the exception of Brody Barrios and Andy Kim did not start wrestling until Jr. High or as Freshman. As an 8th Grader, I didnt know a single thing about wrestling moves, other than what I saw from WWF. I was devastated being cut from the basketball team at Twin Peaks for not making sprints, and also for being a little uncoordinated and clumsy. Nonetheless, a friend of mine urged me to join the wrestling team @ 8th Grade. Mr. Barrios and the Factors thought me the bear hug, and then I fell in love with wrestling from there on. I HATED the sprints at first, but I knew it was necessary to last long in a match. This was the first step on building "Mental Toughness." I wanted to move like Muhammad Ali! I told coach, "I want to learn how to shoot," and my sophomore year, Coach brought in alumni Chad Totina, the "littlest heavyweight" I ever met. However, he thought me the John Smith Low Single and Coach Barrios thought me the Japanese Wizer... for a long time this was my main "TOOLS IN THE BOX." Coach Branstetter provides you, "TOOLS FOR SUCCESS" and everyday a wrestler practices moves and uses these tools to get advantage over one's opponent. "Like in any PROJECT, a guy needs the proper tools to finish the job... use the moves we teach you and put it on your box... eventually, you'll have all the tools you need to be successful at any project." (Coach Alan Toretto, Fall 96). Coach Branstetter and the Poway wrestling staff handed me tools to use in winning my STATE CHAMPIONSHIP FINALS MATCH in '99... by my Senior I was one of the most agile HWTs in the country, but I would have never reached my goals if it wasn't for the Sprints, the Long Distance Runs, Muhammad Ali, Coach Branstetter, and POWAY WRESTLING.

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SILVERBACKSWRESTLING March 28, 2012 @ 11:27 a.m.

These days, I am building my own wrestling program at Ridgeview HS in Bakersfield Area with the principles that I have observed from the Poway Wrestling Program... building a youth program and a high school program together. (HOMEGROWN). What I have learned from Poway is that you always need to surround yourself with good people, have an extreme amount of patience, dedicate your time, and if you don't know the answer, communicate, and seek for proper solutions. With rival team POWERHOUSE Bakersfield HS, I could easily have "sour grapes" like other San Diego coaches complaining about Coach Branstetter's transfers, but I believe in Coach B's principle of not worrying what others are doing, and that you can only control what you yourself can accomplish or is currently doing... success will likely be achieved as long you stick with it and follow through. Dedications and Follow Through is the backbone of the his concept "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions" The most successful men and women usually knows what it takes to reach their goals. Coach Branstetter has always strive every year to reach his season goals for his team and his athletes. I suggest for those other coaches complaining about the Poway Program, "focus more on their own program, stop whining, focus more on winning, or perhaps learning and modeling from what Coach Branstetter instills in his program. Like the saying from "Field of Dreams." BUILD IT and THEY WILL COME... whether it's from HOMEGROWN or people moving and transferring to be part of something GREAT!

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