Barrios says, “It’s something you’re born with. You have to have that fighting spirit that not everyone has. It’s one of those sports that’s in the blood; once you’ve wrestled, it’s a lifestyle, a mentality. The majority of our sport is mental — put in the work and push yourself. You might not have all the physical attributes of being quick or strong, but having the mental aptitude to push yourself, train yourself, that’s the most important. Poway has built a culture of success. Coach Branstetter has been hard at work for the past 30-whatever years. He set up a program with the fundamentals of hard work and dedication. He lives that, and he gets them to buy into that.”
Barrios wishes more kids would give wrestling a whirl. “It’s a chess match. It’s super-exciting out there.” But he admits that it’s not for everyone. “Some kids just don’t like getting smacked in the face.” He notes, “Wrestling is one of those fringe sports. Kids don’t typically watch it on TV, there’s no Pop Warner or Little League wrestling. The majority of the good athletes are in other sports. We get the misfits and rejects from other sports. We’d go out — all the wrestlers — in our PE class at Poway High School and play softball. Half the kids there are CIF champions or state placers, but they could hardly throw or catch a softball.
“Being a wrestler is unlike being any other kind of athlete; it’s a combative sport. There’s so much more that goes into it. You’re taking abuse on a daily basis. To ask a high-school kid to manage his weight and eat a proper diet, that’s a thing that not a lot of kids are capable of doing. It takes a lot of discipline. You want to get at your fighting weight, just like a boxer. You want to be at 7 percent body fat [the lowest percentage permitted], you want to have a six-pack, be in tip-top shape — and they’ve never had to do that before. You have to eat right, train your body right. In football, you just put the weights on the bench [press], eat whatever you want, go to practice, run wind sprints. But in wrestling, everything you do is gonna affect your performance. Are you sleeping enough?”
“Fringe sport” or not, wrestling is front and center on the Titan campus. “At Poway High,” says Barrios, “with the culture of wrestling in the community, people understand what wrestling is about. Every Poway boy has wrestled at some point. Coach Branstetter has a wrestling unit in freshman PE — it’s one of the first things they do — so they’ve all been exposed. They’ve experienced it, so there’s a different level of respect. He teaches them the game of wrestling.” Barrios subscribes to a theory bordering on the inchoate. “There are good, supportive families there with an ingrained work ethic. There’s ‘community.’” Quoting Poway Chamber of Commerce lingo, he says, “It’s a ‘city in the country’…its own little world out there. People have a lot of pride. Hard work is around — it’s the norm. It takes a lot to own a home and live in Poway. Success spills over into wrestling. But it’s not just wrestling. A lot of Poway High sports programs are always at the top.” He also admits that the burg’s affluence “definitely helps.”
Notwithstanding the near-freakish records racked up by Titan wrestlers over the decades, Coach Branstetter’s acolytes are quick to direct attention to his off-the-mat influence. Paul Baird says, “You quickly come to realize that, in the Poway wrestling program, there’s so much more taught than just wrestling…and I think it’s a unique situation, because you’ll find kids who’ve [spent] four years in the program who never wrestled on the varsity ‘A’ team. But they stick around. Why? Because of everything that’s taught on a daily basis in a wrestling room, specifically by Coach. He has a unique ability to relate to kids that are from a completely different generation: ‘You and [me] — let’s link arms and be great together in the sport of wrestling.’ And when you’re done wrestling, the things you’ve learned on a wrestling mat, those are things that are gonna stick with you the rest of your life.”
Former Titan grapplers like Brody Barrios stress the grueling nature of the sport. “It’s like running a six-minute mile with someone trying to hit you on the head and choke you the whole time.”
Barrios says, “Wrestling is really, really tough. If you haven’t done it, haven’t experienced it, haven’t done it in a daily grind, you don’t know. You can run cross-country and feel the pain, you can do water polo and feel the pain — but try running cross-country with a guy on your back who’s trying to slam you to the ground. There’s somebody tweaking you, someone trying to rip your arm out of its socket, twisting you….the mechanics of avoiding that — and then having the stamina to keep on fighting, surviving, getting him off you. Most people that I’ve talked to have had at some time in life a wrestling experience, and they’ve never forgotten it. I’ll never forget the time Coach had us wrestle, and I thought I could handle this kid, and I crawled out of that room puking. Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
So wrestlers are tough guys — but are good wrestlers usually successful in other sports?
“Some,” says Branstetter. However, he also says that the kid with a four-inch vertical leap, no foot speed, and an abject inability to hit a curveball or a golf ball can still be a good, even great, high-school wrestler. “They come in all shapes, forms, and sizes. That’s the beauty of the sport. You have 14 weight classes — 106 all the way to 285.”
Notwithstanding the genuine, heartfelt accolades from alums and boosters, a few rival coaches claim that Poway’s “Titanic” success isn’t solely the product of superior coaching.