Sport isn’t always about winning. Sometimes it’s just a good way to get the kids out of the house.
For one local family, that led to a budding wrestling dynasty.
“We had a whole bunch of boys running around at the same time, with nothing to do,” said Joe Hilderbrand. “(Wrestling) was a really good way to burn energy, and it gave them something constructive to do, other than playing Nintendo.”
Two decades later, four members of the extended Hilderbrand family have earned spots in Washington’s Mat Classic, the state wrestling championship:
Cousin Nathan Brown went to state four times, placing three times and earning a pair of runner-up finishes before graduating from North Central in 2010. Cousin Winston Scott earned his second runner-up finish in 2018. Hilderbrand’s oldest son, Auston, finished seventh in 2012. His second son, Gaje Caro, earned a spot this year, though he didn’t place.
Where it began
It started with Brown, now Glover Middle School’s head wrestling coach.
“I was all into (watching) fake wrestling,” Brown said. “My dad showed me a flyer for a club; he thought I might want to do it.”
Then 7 years old, Brown joined the Spartan Wrestling Club. He was gung ho from the start, catching his Uncle Joe’s attention.
Auston joined the club first. His little brothers, Gaje and Wesley, joined when they were old enough.
“They took to it like ducks to water,” Hilderbrand said. “They just started whipping everybody.”
Hilderbrand and Tabitha Caro, the boys’ mother, joined the surrounding social circle. “It was great; everybody helped everybody,” she said. “We’d all watch each other’s kids, make sure nobody got in trouble.”
Moving on up
The kids were a little too successful; they soon found themselves without competition. “You can only get first place so many times,” Hilderbrand said. “We needed something else, so we stepped up to USA.”
They toured the Northwest, competing in USA Little Guys tournaments in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana. Auston and Gaje competed in a national tournament in Reno. The trips became family minivacations.
“I don’t know how these kids got their energy,” Hilderbrand said. “They’d get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and wrestle all day long, until about 5 o’clock at night, then they’d go back to the hotel, and they’d swim until about 10 o’clock at night. They’d just go and go.”
In high school, Auston and Gaje wrestled for coach Geoff Hensley at West Valley. “Auston used to always talk about his little brothers,” Hensley said. “Five years later, here comes Gaje, … and he’s just a spitting image of his brother.”
Scott took a different path to wrestling success. “My grandma and Winston’s grandma are sisters,” Brown said. “My mom took me to a tournament once at East Valley, and we ran into Sam, Winston’s mom.”
“She said, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are wrestling, too?’ ” he said, laughing.
Another coincidence cemented the family connection during the 2018 Mat Classic. Scott and Gaje Caro were both competing, and their respective family factions found each other.
“(Winston’s) uncles were there, supporting Winston, and they saw (Gaje), and they started cheering him on,” Tabitha Caro said. “I (was) the only one there yelling for Gaje, and then suddenly I had all my cousins there. It was way cool.”
Brown wrestled for University of Great Falls (now University of Providence) before rejoining the North Central wrestling family as a coach under Luke Leifer.
“(Leifer) was a great role model for me,” Brown said. “As soon as I got done wrestling in college, I talked to him about getting on board.”
Auston, now 23, is an Army helicopter mechanic stationed in El Paso, Texas. “He’s grown up to be a really cool adult,” Hensley said.
‘A great run’
The family’s wrestling legacy will only grow. Gaje is a sophomore, and he’s already been state-salted. “When he is confident he is really good,” Hensley said. “Our goal is to get him as high up on the podium as he can go.”
Wesley is in the seventh grade, and more little wrestlers seem to pop up every day. Five-year-old Landon Caro, another cousin, wrestled in the little-guy competition at the Tacoma Dome the day after the Mat Classic ended.
Brown has a 1-year-old son. “He’s already walking,” he said. “So he’ll be wrestling soon.”
Tabitha Caro will be there, everybody’s biggest fan. “I’m one of those moms, they don’t want me yelling, but I do anyway,” she said, laughing. “I can’t help it.”
Said Hilderbrand: “It’s neat now to watch kids in high school, kids that I used to watch when they were 5 years old, out there picking their noses and goofing off.”
“It’s been a great run,” he said.