At its most elemental level, wrestling is the ultimate individual sport. It pits two combatants in a personal confrontation of strength, agility, skill and – most important – determination. It is that battle of will that makes the sport so appealing.
Wrestling not only builds character, but reveals it as well.
Don Owen knows this. He preaches it. And for more than 30 years, he has taught it to more athletes than he can count.
Owen started coaching in 1981 and has been at University High School since 1989.
His Titans squad enters district play this week as one of the favorites, with several wrestlers ranked highly in the state and a good bet to make it through the grueling process of district and regional matches to advance to the state tournament – Mat Classic XXX – at the Tacoma Dome on Feb. 16-17.
U-Hi enters districts ranked No. 7 in state 4A, with Mead No. 5 and Central Valley at No. 16, according to washingtonwrestlingreport.net.
Owen is proud to be part of the wrestling tradition in Spokane.
“This has always been a great wrestling city,” he said. “It kind of dates back to ‘Vision Quest,’ really.”
Owen referenced noted Spokane wrestling coaches Cash Stone and Ken Pelo how some would reverently talk about baseball hall of famers.
His present-day team is full of contenders.
He has two wrestlers ranked No. 1 in 4A – seniors Terrell Sanders at 126 and Hunter Gregerson at 195. Both also starred on the Titans’ football team in the fall.
“I’m very proud of both of them,” Owen said of the pair. “They’ve worked very hard and they’re tremendous kids. Both of them have high GPAs. They’re respected by every kid in our building because they’re such nice kids.
“They’re the kind of young adults you need to have in your program because they act as ‘servant leaders.’ They lead in a special way.”
Sanders has been to state three consecutive seasons, placing as a sophomore and junior. He said the biggest difference between football and wrestling for him is mental.
“Mentally staying in the game is hard,” Sanders said. “In the postseason is when people, I think, it’s what makes and breaks people. There can be a guy ranked first in state and doesn’t do as well (in the tournament) because he’s ready to be done. I think staying mentally strong is a big thing for me.”
For Gregerson, the physical side is tougher between gridiron and mat.
“Conditioning, getting in wrestling shape,” Gregerson said about the challenge between the two disciplines. “Being able to wrestle hard for 6 minutes without getting tired.”
In an individual sport, Gregerson stressed that he loves wrestling for the team aspect, based on the physical proximity with 60 other athletes all working out in the same room.
“I think (team camaraderie) is more with wrestling because of how much time we spend together,” Gregerson said. “You’re so close with your practice partners. You’re rolling around with them every day. The workouts are just super hard. You’re both going through it together.
“I think it creates a special bond. When you see your teammates win, it’s just that much more exciting.”
“We’ll work for each other. We aren’t just going to do it for ourselves,” he said. “We’re going to do it for one another. Building that in your team is really important. You’re going to get more from kids when they think they’re doing it for somebody else.”
The hands-on treatment is another thing Owen stressed.
“It is unbelievable how close you become to your teammates and your coaches when you’re involved in the sport of wrestling,” he said. “I think it has to do with putting your hands on people and physically touching someone that builds this connectedness that you feel toward one another.”
Justin Jessop, who wrestles at 145, agreed with his coach.
“It’s a very unique sport because no one has tougher workouts than wrestling does,” he said. “Something about enduring a hardship with a friend, together, in different weight classes – regardless, anybody on the team – you look at them as brothers and you go through these hard times and it brings you closer together.
“I think you bond a lot closer than you would in other sports.”
That physical closeness also builds emotional bonds.
“As coaches, to have their kids out on the mat, it’s like your son out there,” Owen said. “If he loses that big match – doesn’t go to state – it’s crushing for that kid but it’s crushing for the coaches and teammates, too.”
Having bonds like that over a 30-year period comes with side effects.
“I’d be lying to you if I said that it isn’t a grind,” Owen said, mentioning injury, illness, attrition and dealing with constant losing as issues he deals with on a daily basis. “Because it’s hard. It’s hard being a wrestling coach, because you have so much stuff to have to deal with.”
But Owen wouldn’t have it any other way. He said he’s had more talent on other teams, but not a better group of people, specifically mentioning his group of 16 seniors.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever had this many great kids on a team,” Owen said. “I’ve never felt as close to a group of kids as I do right now.
“These kids as a whole have lifted our sport in our school to a new level.”