Confessing that I’m a tyro, I ask the coach to outline the basics.
“Greco-Roman and freestyle are the two international styles. Folkstyle has a different scoring system, which is more centered on control. It’s real simple. There are only three positions in wrestling. If you and I were to go at it, we’d start facing each other in the ‘neutral’ position. If all of a sudden I get control of you — where’s ‘control’? it’s behind you — now you’re in a defensive position…and you’re being controlled. It’s all centered around control. Basically, the sport was born out of one man saying, ‘I think I can throw you down on the mat, put you on your back.’ It becomes a legal battle.”
I ask Branstetter: “What are you allowed to do? For example, can you trip your opponent?”
“Everything. There are some illegal holds; you can’t do a ‘full Nelson.’ It’s not MMA [mixed martial arts]. No biting. Safety first. You can’t go against joints the wrong way, where they won’t go.”
If continued, long-term superiority counts — we’re talking 4 California titles, 4 runner-up marks, and another 13 top-five finishes — then Poway wrestling is a juggernaut, rivaled in California only by Clovis High School near Fresno. Among local prep programs, Poway’s dominance is even more extreme: during Branstetter’s 34-season tenure as the top Titan, his squads have won the San Diego Section Division I title 29 years in a row.
The high-school wrestling season begins in October and culminates in the California State Championships, which take place in March at the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. The event draws around 10,000 spectators, most of whom are friends and family of the competitors, along with alums and a few die-hard devotees. But it’s not the general public. As one former Titan star points out: “It’s not intuitive. In football, you score a touchdown and get points. In wrestling, the point system, the periods and so on, don’t mean much unless you know a little bit.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrestling — in terms of number of schools sponsoring teams — is the eighth most popular high-school team sport in the nation, with nearly 10,000 squads. In terms of participants, it ranks sixth, with around a quarter-million high school wrestlers. (The most recent survey reflects the 2006–2007 season.) In California alone, there are approximately 900 teams with a total of 35,000–40,000 wrestlers. Nonetheless, outside the mat — beyond the bounds of the insular, almost incestuous world of high-school and collegiate wrestling — the sport hardly draws a mention.
To get additional perspective on Poway’s legacy on the mats, I spoke with some of Branstetter’s former charges. “Why,” I asked, “has Poway been so good for so long?”
Paul Baird, a 2003 graduate who won the California State Championship at 145 lbs. as a junior, and 152 lbs. during his senior year, minces no words: “I think it’s because of one man — because of Coach Branstetter. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you, ‘It’s the water.’”
For Baird, wrestling was a family tradition. “My brothers wrestled for Coach Branstetter; I’d been around the program for years. Dave was nine years older than me, and I can remember him bringing the Poway wrestling singlet home and putting it on. I dreamed of one day being able to do that.”
When I served up the “nature vs. nurture” question, Baird said, “With Coach Branstetter, they’re made. Just like in anything else, your God-given ability helps. But when people wonder, ‘Why is Poway wrestling so unique?’ I tell them it’s because Coach Branstetter can take the average kid and he can make him very good. He can take the kid who’s actually talented — who has some athletic ability — and he can make him great. And that’s really where the difference is.” According to Baird, Branstetter’s influence extends far beyond the cozy confines of prep wrestling. “He has the ability to take the kid who has no idea about the sport of wrestling and make him not only a champion on the mat, but a champion in life. Every single person you talk to will say that Coach Branstetter is more than just a wrestling coach.”
Despite the ongoing success of Titan wrestling, Branstetter says that it’s still a Herculean task getting guys to go out for wrestling. “Are you kidding? I’m begging — I have to be a top salesman. When you’re trying to fill a team with 14 weight classes, you might find a whole bunch of munchkins, but it’s hard to find the bigger guys. They can get satisfied playing football or other sports. It’s always hard.”
One might think that standouts in other sports could be enticed to give wrestling a try; after all, the high-school sports scene is rife with successful multi-sport athletes. But according to Branstetter, wrestling is a different bailiwick altogether. “From our varsity football team that just won the CIF [California Interscholastic Federation] title — I got only one. I’m mean, they’re studs out there. I haven’t been able to crack that one.”
I queried Brody Barrios: “Why aren’t more football players interested?”
Barrios, an all-time Titan great — now the wrestling coach for both Palomar College and San Marcos High School — exemplifies the close-knit (some would say clannish) nature of San Diego County prep wrestling. “It’s hard work. When push comes to shove, they’d rather not try it. You’re exposed. You’re very vulnerable out there by yourself with no one else to rely on, nothing to hide behind. In football, you miss your block, maybe you still get a five-yard gain, but in wrestling it’s all you.”
For Barrios, who graduated in 2000, it’s always been about the battle on the mat. “I started wrestling at five or six with the Escondido Crunchers at the Escondido Boys and Girls Club. When they stopped hosting wrestling, my dad started a new club and called it the San Marcos Slammers. When we moved to Poway (I was in seventh grade), he brought them there and renamed them the Poway Slammers. It’s the largest youth wrestling program in San Diego.”