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Room to roll: Middle school wrestling program seeks to bulk up numbers

Jan. 22, 2011

Facing the grim picture of a $3.5 million shortfall for the Hood River County School District's next fiscal budget, it's easy to forget about the nearly $2 million the district had to cut from its 2010-11 budget. On last year's chopping block were all middle school sports, which was estimated to save the district about $100,000.

The cuts were made; but sports this year at both Wy'east and Hood River middle schools have been kept alive, albeit through a changed program. Organized through Hood River County School District's Community Education, middle school students still have the opportunity to participate in athletics.

Among the sports still available is one of venerable tradition in Hood River: Wrestling.

Through extensive fundraising and support from the Hood River Wrestling Club, programs at both of Hood River's middle schools have remained fairly unchanged, despite the funding cuts.

"Hood River has a really good wrestling program, with excellent coaches and a long tradition," said John Rust, Community Education director. "It would be great to see it survive."

"Survive," Rust says, because numbers at both schools - in particular Hood River Middle School - are down this year; and one possible cut for the next school year is what little funding the district was able to give to Community Education to support its takeover of middle school athletics.

Practices started this month, with about 15 on the mat at HRMS and 35 signed up at Wy'east.

"Our local wrestling community has worked so hard this past year to make sure that we could offer middle school wrestling programs that were not inferior to what the school district had been able to offer in the past," said Matt Kennedy, HRMS coach. Kennedy has coached the sport at Wy'east, HRVHS and HRMS for about 15 years. "We have a full competition schedule, including regional and state meets; but participation is way down. It's like having a great car with a tank full of gas, but no passengers."

Numbers at Wy'east are down a bit from last year as well, and the 35 kids signed up are not all coming to practice. Although practices have started, it's not too late for wrestlers of any experience level to join a team, and coaches at both schools are encouraging latecomers to turn out.

"Unlike some sports, wrestling is very coaching-specific," Rust said. "It is a sport in which you need qualified coaches. You can't just get parents to show up and volunteer to coach like many other sports. We came up with a plan that left the program and professional coaches in place."

About half the funding for this year's program came from the Hood River Wrestling Club (formerly Airtime Wrestling), which has been active in the community for decades. Participation through HRWC has seen a steady increase over the last few years, but the bulk of the kids in the club are pre-middle school age. Middle school wrestlers who participate in HRWC practices are only allowed to do so until the start of their school's season.

This year, HRWC provided half the funding for both middle schools' seasons, which was enough to keep practices at five days a week and give both teams a full schedule of meets and tournaments.

"The kids receive a tremendous value for the money spent," Rust said, noting the fee for participating this season is $65.

"It's very important for kids to be involved in sports" said Brent Emmons, HRMS principal. "We've had lower numbers in wrestling here for a few years. It's hard to say exactly why that is; but part of it, I think, has to do with the number of options available to kids these days. Things change pretty fast at the middle school level. One year one club, activity, or sport is all the rage; and the next year it's something else. Next year we could have 50 kids come out for wrestling."

"The kids that we do have are doing a great job, and several of them should be quite successful this year," Kennedy said about the HRMS team. "But we're lacking that critical mass of kids that make practices and competitions a lot more fun."

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