“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
Image by Howie Rosen
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].”
Image by ROBIN REYNOLDS SIMMONS
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.”
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.”
All-time Titan great Brody Barrios (standing) says wrestling
is like running a six-minute mile with someone trying
to hit you on the head and choke you the whole time
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.”
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?”
Titans rolling up the mats for a match
Image by Howie Rosen
“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.
Steve Koch, head coach at Ramona, complains that, in contrast to the spacious digs of the Munday Center, his wrestling room consists of an “old gym where we have to move the mats out every day.” Noting Poway’s ability to attract transfers, he quips, “We do the best we can with what’s out there — and there isn’t much. Last year, we had our best season ever — and we still finished second behind Poway.” Nonetheless, Koch allows, “Wayne Branstetter is a good man.”
Perry Watson, who holds the reins at Westview, goes a bit further. “Half of their starting lineup isn’t from Poway — they draw the best athletes. If I had five or six transfers a year like they do…” The affable Watson seems awed by the Titan machine. “Their entire B team would be starters on my A team, and even 60–70 percent of their C [team] could start.”
But the most outspoken by far is Victor Richmond, head wrestling coach at Mount Miguel in Spring Valley.
Richmond, who calls Poway High School a “bully,” charges that Poway power has been perpetuated partially by bending — or even breaking — the CIF rules that govern recruiting and transfers. He says that out of the 14 “A” varsity wrestlers on the 2011–2012 squad, six “should have” been pounding the mats at other schools. “If you transfer athletically — motivated athletically — and every one of those kids went into Poway off an athletic transfer — it’s not allowed. We’re not talkin’ about ‘any type’ of transfers. One took a second at the California State meet. One took a fourth and another took a fifth at the Master’s. We’re talkin’ about the best kids around.”
Among Richmond’s more incendiary allegations is that Poway wrestling boosters have furnished bogus local addresses for star wrestlers. “Let’s take [current Titan standout] Victor Lopez, for instance. Lives out in Calexico. Key words — still lives in Calexico. Let’s be real. You know the Poway district, you know the area. A lot of the people in Poway do a little renting. Some people have a little money, where they can get one of them apartments. Jesse Taylor transferred in his freshman year — still lives in Murrieta — I know where he lives. A lot of those people are puttin’ up kids; they’re protectin’ their own, that’s all. Stevie Cervantes transferred from Eastlake. Another guy came from Imperial High School. The Doyles, [they] should’ve been at Ramona. Ralphie Tovar should be in the San Bernardino area. I really don’t know how they got there. How the hell do you get six kids of that caliber to transfer in? It’s just not fair.”
In 2008, Richmond was among a contingent of local wrestling coaches who sent a protest letter to the CIF, whose commissioner at the time was Dennis Ackerman. (According to a U-T article posted on September 25, 2008, “more than 15 coaches submitted allegations.”) However, after a lengthy investigation, the CIF concluded that there was no basis to impose sanctions against Poway. But Richmond levels charges of favoritism: “Ackerman’s son played baseball at Poway…he [Ackerman] turned a blind eye to a lot of what went on. Some of us are scrutinized by the CIF under those same rules they’re lettin’ these guys get away with. It’s just frustrating.”
Richmond also claims that the Titans have violated CIF rules by attempting to lure younger wrestlers to the Munday mats. “I got two emails from a guy who says that Poway’s havin’ a luncheon for 20 junior wrestlers — recruiting — which is illegal. They’re currently in junior high. You know, when you got a tournament, you see a kid wrestle real good, you get one of those Poway boosters to talk to the kid: ‘We could make you a state champ over at Poway.’ In Minneapolis [summer wrestling camp], I was standing there when one of the assistant coaches at Poway was recruiting Sammy Cervantes for the heavyweight class the incoming year. He was a senior, transferring out of Imperial High School.”
When I told Richmond that Branstetter and his alums say that most of their wrestlers are “home-grown,” Richmond shot back, “They all lie.”
Richmond disputes the notion that Branstetter’s work ethic is key. “Hard work. Yeah, whatever. Really? They’ve been doin’ the same thing we do. There’s nothin’ special about what they’re teaching them. It’s just wrestling. I can tell you he don’t work no harder than I do. Since 1987, since I’ve been coaching, nobody can say I recruited a kid out of his room. ‘We don’t have the best athletes — we make ordinary kids great’? It’s such a lie. They just got Connor King from Colorado. He’s ranked #2 in the state. I get raw athletes — most of them in ninth grade — and teach them to wrestle. I don’t critique a kid that somebody else taught how to wrestle.”
“That’s bullshit. Sorry.”
Richmond and his compatriots complain of “stacking” and say that Poway’s roster is so deep that it deprives San Diego County of greater representation at the California championships. “Those kids are being stockpiled in that room, because you can only get one kid per weight class. They have possibly two state medalists in that room at [a certain] weight; one should’ve been somewhere else.”
Branstetter steadfastly disputes Richmond’s accusations of cheating. “Six transfers? That’s a blatant lie. There are three. One moved in from Colorado. One kid, Cervantes — his brother wrestled for us a couple of years ago — the family moved from Eastlake and came to Poway. Another kid, Jara, came from Imperial; his dad was a wrestling coach who didn’t want to coach anymore and wanted his boy to be at a better school.” Lopez’s parents still live in Calexico? “That’s a lie. Lopez was in Poway schools in sixth through ninth grades, then his mother changed jobs and went back to Calexico for four months. I wouldn’t call Lopez a transfer. That’s it. Big deal.
“That’s what they do. They make this stuff up. I’ve been coaching for 40 years, and, yeah, this was an unusual year. On occasion, we’ve had a transfer or two during the last ten years. No doubt about it, that’s happened. But nobody’s out there recruiting anybody. Look at our state championship teams in ’86, ’99, ’05, and ’09, and name one transfer who placed.”
I asked him about the much-ballyhooed import, Connor King.
“The first day of class, the athletic director calls me and says we have this kid from Colorado in. The family had come to California so his sister could audition in Hollywood. The mother was a principal and wanted to come to a good school district. They have a CIF rule that says you can’t move for ‘athletic reasons.’ But families can move as long as coaches don’t have pre-enrollment contact with them. Which we don’t. Someone comes into the district for education. Does he consider wrestling? Probably he does. What can I do about that? Connor King showed up at my doorstep. What was I supposed to do, tell him to go away? We’re not out there recruiting. We’re coaching our team the best we can, and I can’t help it if a family shows up and wants to come to Poway.
Poway High wrestlers typically dominate their opponents
Image by Howie Rosen
“Victor Richmond has been to six different high schools, and he just likes to stir this up. Jesse Taylor? That’s amazing. If you want to come over and meet Mr. and Mrs. Taylor at their house, I’ll gladly take you over there. How come our ‘B’ team won the El Cajon tournament? How come they won the Orange Glen tournament today? If they think we’re winning because of transfers, they’re hallucinating. Anyone who’s wrestled in my program knows that it’s not true. These are ‘sour grapes’ coaches. They hate us and they’re bitter.”
According to Branstetter, the “recruiting” claims are wholly specious. “Oh, my God — that’s criminal. That’s defamation. That’s a blatant lie. If you claim something like that, you get laughed at. Lie, lie, lie. Mr. Cervantes got a job with a heavy-equipment company in Rancho Bernardo. He had the opportunity then to make a decision: ‘Do I wanna move my boy, my family, to Poway where we can live?’ And [Sammy Cervantes] played football — he was on our championship football team. Every one of these kids had to go through the scrutiny of the CIF.
“I called those 15 coaches and asked if they’d signed that letter. There were 4 or 5, 6 of them at most; those others got an email, and their email [address] was put at the bottom of that letter. The whole thing went on for a couple of months in 2009, and it was very upsetting for me. The 2009 California title team? They were all Poway kids.”
I asked Branstetter, “Are you guys bullies?”
“Absolutely not. We’re the star on the hill. This is the kind of character [Richmond] you’re dealing with. He should spend more time building his own program. He’s been at six different high schools. He’s not a credible guy at all. This guy has never built a program in his life. Talk to my wrestlers, talk to my principal, talk to my parents. It really upsets me because I’m a strong, moral Christian — I’m a ‘character’ guy. When someone comes down on you like that…it’s wrong, absolutely wrong. We’ve built something that’s wonderful, and it took me 40 years to build.”
Branstetter stresses Titan wrestling’s humble beginnings. “It never used to be this way. For 30 years, we didn’t have a Doc Munday Center. I worked out in the cafeteria. And then, what’s happened in the last five, six years — along comes a Doc Munday.” Branstetter points to a framed photo of a small man in old-fashioned clothes. “He befriended me in 1978 when I was 27 years old. He liked our program, so at his death at 92, he willed a million dollars to our foundation. Where were the other coaches? A couple of them were probably still in diapers when we won our first state title in ’86 and our first CIF championship in ’82. In 1991, we were 157-0…We set a dual meet record that was unprecedented.”
I asked him about the CIF investigation and Richmond’s cry of “foul.”
“He’s wrong. Ackerman removed himself from the equation and put Bill McLaughlin — the assistant commissioner — in charge for that very reason, so that people wouldn’t think that there was favoritism. Believe me, Bill McLaughlin tried very hard to find something. But at the end of the day, he came in and said, ‘Coach Branstetter, we couldn’t find anything.’
Poway Titans in their locker room
after a recent match with Mt. Carmel
Image by Howie Rosen
“That’s what happens when you get on top. I’m gonna tell you straight up. All we do is work hard. We want nothing but the best for our kids. We take kids from 14 to 18 and make them better men, and use wrestling to do it. If a family looks at that and thinks it’s a place for their son, that’s great, but we’re not out there recruiting anybody. Richmond is so out there — he’s talking out of his ass. This is a guy who doesn’t know me. He’s never seen me coach. I’ve coached thousands of kids with just a handful of transfers. There’s a handful of coaches out there who absolutely, vehemently hate us and would like to see us come down. It’s simply because our sin is that we’ve developed a winning program If you talk to José Campo [wrestling coach] at Mount Carmel, you won’t get that response.”
As for Branstetter’s former stars, they have nothing but praise for him. Joe Baird states, “He’s a father figure. You do the things he tells you to do. Number one, because of his track record of success; but you also do it because you don’t want to let him down. Very rarely will you find the Poway wrestlers out partying, being caught up in the social scene of high school. Because they know if Coach were to find out, it would just mean disappointment more than anything else. It’s not so much that they’re going to get in trouble, but because Coach is gonna be disappointed.”
Baird, like everyone else connected with Titan wrestling, maintains that Poway has, at best, the same raw material as other county prep wrestling programs. “The majority of those who wrestle at the highest levels at Poway High School are just wrestlers — and that’s a very unique thing to Coach Branstetter — because he has developed his program not based on the best athletes, but built it on the average 14- to 18-year-old.”
Baird, like all the other Titans with whom I spoke, praises Branstetter’s emphasis on the work ethic. “Take today, as an example. The kids wrestled from 9:30–12:00 this morning, went home and rested, then came back at 3:00 and had another practice until 4:00, 4:30. It’s very much a college-type program. Their practices are just as tough. When your friends are at the beach on a Saturday summer afternoon, and you, at three o’clock, say, ‘Hey guys, I gotta go to practice,’ they recognize that you’re different than they are. If you want to see a testament to Poway wrestling, go into the wrestling room during Christmas vacation, and you’ll have anywhere from 5 to 15 kids that are coming back just to see Coach Branstetter. That’s very unique. It shows the influence he’s had.”
One recent factor in the Titan phenomenon has been the promulgation of junior wrestling, programs offered by Twin Peaks Middle School and by the Poway Wrestling Foundation, which sponsors the Slammers and the Elites. However, Branstetter notes that, until the last few years, only 5 to 10 percent of his wrestlers had even tried the sport before their freshman year. Does an early start give a wrestler an advantage? “It’s a gamble. Start a kid too young and he may burn out before he gets to high school.”
Justin Woodruff is the sort of Titan grad that Branstetter revels in spotlighting.
“I was not a wrestler coming into high school,” Woodruff says. “I’d never wrestled before my freshman year. I took six weeks of wrestling in freshman PE and thought I’d try out for the team in November and see how things went. I was lousy, but I liked Coach Branstetter and what he had to say and his way of inspiring kids to try the sport and see how they do. In my case, the wrestler was made by the program.”
Woodruff adds, “It’s Wayne Branstetter. He is the reason the program became what it is. He has a passion for the sport that’s reflected in the amount of time he puts into it. But time’s not enough. He spends an enormous amount of time with each kid, but he also has the background in the sport and the technical ability to teach them what they need to know to be successful. If you’re blessed with natural ability, genetics, it’ll help you out in the long run. But fundamentally sound technique — coupled with mental toughness, the desire to win — are the two top things. You can be very successful and not be a ‘specimen.’ Football, rugby, where kids are tough-nosed, used to that type of physical competition, [they] might lend themselves to wrestling, but that doesn’t mean if you’re good at football, you’ll be good at wrestling. I’ve seen it translate in some cases with the bigger guys.”
Woodruff, who spent nine years as a helicopter pilot in the Marines, sounds a note of empathy for prep wrestlers. “I don’t try to make practices as tough as possible. It’s just the nature of the sport. You just can’t wing it. It’s a grind. You can’t hide in a wrestling practice.”
But he says it’s worth the effort. “I had friends who never made the varsity ‘A’ lineup, but they stuck it out all four years and got their letter. They look back at their wrestling careers as fondly as I look back at mine. We want them to be successful wrestlers, but we focus on their development as people. “It’s also the other stuff [Branstetter] brings into practice — talks he gives after practice about character and honesty and all those other things that we’re trying to develop in these young guys in the program. Not just the hard work aspect, but he brings a whole bunch of other stuff to the table. You’re more concerned about letting Wayne down…he’s not a yeller…if you don’t give 100 percent, you just feel terrible.
“If a kid sticks it out, we know he’s gonna walk away from the program — even if he’s not an ‘A’ guy — with a bunch of intangibles that he’ll carry with him the rest of his life. That’s the reason I’m back. I’m living proof. All the stuff I learned from Wayne carried over directly to my performance in [NCAA] Division I at the Naval Academy and during five deployments in Iraq. The same things — the leadership, the persistence — all that stuff I can tie back directly to the Poway High wrestling room.
I asked Coach Branstetter how wrestlers fare in the often-tenuous social scene of high school, where the “right” clothes, friends — or sport — can spell the difference between the proverbial “big man on campus” and the invisible pariah. “Wrestlers are well respected at Poway, but that’s not always the case across the country. I think it’s better now.”
Surprisingly, Branstetter credits the combatants of the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] with validating prep wrestling. Despite the prevailing attitude among coaches and athletes alike — that the freak-show antics of professional wrestling (and related spectacles) are an embarrassment to serious sportsmen — he asserts that the recent popularity of such “trailer-trash sports” has pumped up the cachet of high-school grapplers. “All those guys are ex-wrestlers, and they’re the toughest guys in the world,” he says.
Justin Woodruff comments: “Because of the legacy that Wayne’s built here on campus, most kids know that if you wrestle at Poway, that’s a good thing. It’s probably a challenge on other campuses where it’s not as well known, but here, you’re looked highly upon by your peers.”
Whatever cachet wrestling may have within the penumbra of the Munday building, even Wayne Branstetter admits that prep wrestling doesn’t exactly light up the marquee. “Obviously, it’s not as popular as other sports. It’s not ‘the thing to do.’ Everybody plays soccer, everybody plays baseball, everybody knows what football is — you’re on the team.” But wrestling is a harder sell. “For some kids, when they wrestle somebody, it’s, like, ‘This is cool.’ When you’re grappling, trying to control someone… But for some people, when you start to do that, it’s, like, ‘Eeww — hey, get off me.” ‘Somethin’, I don’t know what you call it, chemistry.”
Do you cut many? “No, we don’t cut. They cut themselves.”
Brody Barrios confirms the self-winnowing process at Poway. “When I was a freshman, about 70 came out for the 14 weight classes. That trickles down. By the end of the year, almost 30 quit. Forty made it through the freshman year. By the time I graduated in 2000, we had only 7 seniors remaining. There’s always tons of freshmen.”
According to Justin Woodruff, Poway’s success on the mats is all about dedication. “Coach always says, ‘The season started back in 1974 when I started coaching, and it’ll finish when I retire.’ In most programs, the season starts in November and finishes in February or early March. At Poway, there is no off-season. We keep going year-round. I think that’s how we outdistance ourselves from the competition. That guy works incredibly hard, and he’s just a good man. You put the two together, and it makes for what you see at Poway.”
Finally, I ask Branstetter: How has Poway’s wrestling program maintained its dominance over decades?