Mavericks’ Stampede, the Road to Wrestling Championships.

  Bryan Grubbs doesn’t seem short on the mat. Reaching 5’2 and 119 pounds, his wide shoulders and massive legs makes him appear like a giant compared to most of his opponents. At the time of 2010 San Diego Section Masters he was ranked fourth in state. His movements exude ease, aggression and a drive for something more.  Wrestling Grubbs is a little bit like facing a freight train, explosive power that power through and doesn’t stop. At Masters, he humiliated state ranked Gabe Brown (Poway) as if ending the match early would bring the date of State Championships closer and with it, a chance for redemption. 

This was La Costa Canyon High School’s golden year. Coach Buth had a talented crop of seniors and he was making the most of it. Second up of four at Master’s finals for La Costa Canyon was Billy Reyes (135lb).  His technique had come a long way in three short years.  As Billy widened his lead over Spazo Illyich of Ramona, he ran to Coach Buth and Coach Ramirez into a hug that is the hallmark of wrestling matches when the coach lifts the wrestler into the air like a feather. 

At that moment, there was nothing more that I wanted than to be down there on the mat with them. I nearly jumped up with joy, but I didn’t. I was at a coffee shop watching the match live online, separated by mountains, snow and a lack of time. Proud of Billy because I had often seen him at practice seemingly unmotivated, tired yet full of potential. Bogged down by problems that I never had. But come match time, he wrestled with his heart. Never giving up and constantly on the attack. Seemingly without a single doubt. Coach Buth later recounted to me how the Jr. High Coach, Brian Asamoto (my middle school coach and later boss), had taken Billy aside to teach the sophomore the proper wrestler stance only  two years earlier. 

After the match Billy, ecstatic, ran off the mat with a hug to his teammate Kyle Switzler. “Switz” was awaited on the mat beneath the opaque halo of the spotlight by Smith of Brawley HS. A flashback ran through my mind: four years ago when lanky Kyle Switzler stepped on the mat at La Costa Canyon Freshman Championships finals. Flexing his skinny arms to the roar of the crowd, only to be pinned a few minutes later by a Brawley wrestler to hushed silence in a packed gym.  A rematch in the making and new Switz was confident, not cocky. The first time I met Kyle, he introduced himself as if already an adult: looking me straight in the eyes with a firm shake as he said “Hi, my name is Kyle Switzler.”  

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Kyle’s match began in the usual same goofy style: Kyle was down after the first period by 2-1 and still warming up. By second period it was 4-1 and I was sure Boothie (Coach Buth) had trademark beads of sweat welling up on his large forehead. Then, with a caution and a switch it was even at 4-4. Switz let Smith escape and then with a reversal he fought off an escape attempt. Next he nearly got back points as he placed Smith in his patented body corkscrew (opponent’s legs look one way while his arm tweaking the neck and shoulders in the opposite direction, so painful that opponents often attempt to pin themselves). Kyle then lost a take down,  got a reversal and at six minutes revenge was had. Kyle along with Grubbs, Billy and Taylor Cox were on their way to the California State Wrestling Championships.

 Beginning

My story with La Costa Canyon High School (LCC) began as an eighth grader at Diegueno Jr. High when I had the choice of going to the San Dieguito Academy (SDA) or La Costa. I chose SDA where I wrestled in my last two years and later went on to UC San Diego for college. Then four years ago, I was finishing up college and was an assistant coach at the neighboring my alma matter. That year,  together with Coach Hernandez we took Devon Sheldon as the first SDA wrestler to State. That was the last year of wrestling at SDA.

Afterwards, I continued to wrestle at UCSD and a year after the head coach Tommy left SDA to become a freshman coach at La Costa, I began attending the open gym at La Costa Canyon. Every once in a while at first, but with welcoming persistence from Coach Buth, I soon became a regular. I believed it to be one of the best programs in San Diego and it is my philosophy that you have to learn from the best to become the best. The wrestling room at LCC was a welcoming place.  Every time I entered the room he greeted me with a huge smile and a booming “Hey Coachie!”, instantly making me  feel welcome in a room of unfamiliar faces. 

“Buth should have been a politician” Assistant Coach Don Williams once said. Dwayne Buth has an uncanny ability to be enthusiastic.  This demeanor can switched in a moment’s notice. At practice and at matches Coach Buth is all business. Weighing in at 200 pounds, his giant chest and wide shoulders, perfectly oval head, a direct gaze and booming voice snap most teenagers in line. Coach Buth comes from a long line of prestigious coaches. He was a California High School Champion at Mount Miguel and later wrestled for Cal State Fullerton. His coaches included Ned Blass, a two time National Champ at Oklahoma, who also coached Jay Robinson and Bill Clauder. Bill Clauder was one of the all time high school coaches and coached Buth at Mount Miguel. At Fullerton he was coached by Dale Siscon who went to UCLA with the Schultz brothers. 

This pedigree gives Buth confidence but he also has innate drive to compete and excellence. He seems to be in a perpetual motivation mode, looking for the right buttons for every wrestler. He realizes when it is better to send someone else to get something done and how to say it such that it does get done.  “Coach Williams, go get in his head.” he’d say and then Ryan would come back, reporting on the wrestler’s thoughts. He knows how to hold on to good talent. That could also be that good people attract good people and because his passion is intoxicating. There is a humility mixed with his charisma and desire for perfection.  He once said to me “You know, sometimes you’re doing something and you just don’t know if it’s the right thing but you try anyway until you get it right.” Even perfect coaches aren’t always perfect.

Buth’s effect is clear as one looks on the walls and sees the names of state placers and pictures of previous wrestling champions.  My gaze often pauses on the wrestlers I wrestled with many years ago, when LCC was still San Dieguito (LCC was the new school where San Dieguito moved, changing old San Dieguito into an Academy). I remember the Jimmy Hamada Memorial Tournament being held at San Dieguito back in 1995 when I was still in 8th grade. Jim Hamada was a wrestler for San Dieguito, placing first at Master’s but tragically died in an accident. Back then it was Coach Fields coaching his all star team composed of Leo Perez, Robert Asamoto, Brian Pogue, Michael Atwood, Loch McHale and Kevin Sanger. Fifteen years later, emerging from the shadows of my heroes were Switz, Grubbs, Nelson, Cox and Reyes.

Jimmy Hamada Invitational

Now, so many years later at the Hamada tournament, I was a new coach and I felt out of place and without a clue on what to do or where to go. There is no defined role for a volunteer coach and as I later found out, Buth didn’t know either. However, by never pushing, he let me decide where I could find myself of use. 

The Jimmy Hamada was originally a dual tournament, which means teams line up by weight on opposite sides of the mat and wrestlers weight by weight battle it out to see which is the better team. The LCC team lost to only one team that day: Coach Buck’s team (ex-LCC assistant coach) and Buth was livid . He gathered the team in the wrestling room and let them have it.  

“They came here, into our house and whooped us!”  Coach yelled to the somber group of teenagers inspecting the floor with sullen gazes. Buth, an ex-state champ has champion expectations and intense aversion to loss. 

“You guys are just sitting here, cracking jokes, acting lackadaisical!” Assistant Coach Ramirez said.
“What’s lackadaisical?” some wrestler asked.

The pep talk didn’t seem to have an effect and felt even more lost without a place to be during downtime in between matches. During the matches I wasn’t sure of what to do either.  I attempted to stay quiet and let the coaches coach and yet I had that strong urge to yell to the wrestler I trained the day before. Sometimes, I couldn’t help it and I’d let “Put in the half!” slip out. 

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To a coach, every match is something personal that is impossible to explain to a wrestler. To most of the wrestlers this was just a tournament, just another match to be nervous before, to fight and to move on to the next match. But a coach knows that at some point, there is no such thing as an easy match. Every match requires effort to win, even if the opponent is weaker or less experienced. Losing focus for a brief second, over exertion or underconditioning can make the difference between a win and loss.  It is the job of the coach to get the wrestlers to get that focus and to put in that effort needed for a win.  Wrestlers needed to be motivated because while it looks like an individual sport, in reality,  every loss mattered, especially in a dual meet where every match affected morale of other matches to follow and the point standing of the team. You may lose by a pin early on and have no idea that the two extra points of the pin lost the team a championship. 

This is why the mindset of a wrestler has to be not just to wrestle, but to fight; it’s the only way to win. And so the coaches drive into them one after another, speech after speech, the idea that losing is not an option, giving up is not an option. The coaches spoke to the wrestlers of pride and how the season would look if they continued wrestling without purpose, how disappointed they would be if they let their apathy take hold.

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I stood, off in the distance, in a half-lit dance room that doubles as a wrestling room. Without mats exposing hard-wood floors. The room felt filled with shamed silence. Hushed was the usual adolescent laughter. Heads hung and Coach Buth’s eyes reflected concern. After the coaches left, jokes trickled back slowly. They were embarrassed, mostly quiet. Some napped on the wood floor, regenerating after complete exhaustion post wrestling match. I sat next to a couple guys, reminiscing about what I wouldn’t give to be back here, to be wrestling again.

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This was the last year for the five seniors sitting around me and their last chance to do something. In half an hour, back on the mat, LCC faced San Marcos High on the opposite side of the mat. Something inside LCC snapped and the wrestlers came out battling.  There were a few close matches but mostly a lot of big pins. It became clear that the words of motivation worked. Still, in the end, the loss to Coach Buck’s team hurt.  LCC took third place on home turf and it didn’t feel good.

Loss is often hard to take, loss hurts, but loss can also drive change, and things would change the rest of the season. That tournament remained in the recesses of the team’s memory as a loss to avoid.  With hard work, the team trained for the next two weeks for the prestigious Tournament of Champions in Reno Nevada.

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Tournament of Champions

Reno is a prequel to state championships, where the best in the west region wrestle. The guys dyed their heads blue and that made Buthie shake his head when at five pm only five varsity guys were on the mat with purple, black or silverfish hair and  black and blue stains on their shirts as the dye came off their hair and stuck to everything else. I don’t remember how the guys performed at Reno as I wasn’t there but I do remember “I’m OK with the team spirit and all,” said Buth to me, his lips taught while pausing for a moment “But not when it cuts into practice time. It’s five already and we’re still missing half the team; not to mention the mess in the locker room.”  Blue and black stained the sink in the bathroom, the floors around the sink, and trails criss-crossed on the floor from heads dripping dye. 

At practice the guys were clearly tired  of maintaining weight, lumbering through the end of practice sprints. Buth lined them up in between drills; pacing back and forth like Mel Gibson in Braveheart minus horse and face paint. His chest puffed, arms swinging, eyes fierce: “When I was in High School we didn’t have Reno! We didn’t have Reno! I wish we had Reno!!!!” Pumping them up for the importance of a tournament nearly a 1000 miles away. Blue hair doesn’t win matches, hard work does, and hard work doesn’t just happen, it has to be instilled. 

Five Counties 

A couple weeks later I drove up to Fountain Valley for 5-Counties Tournament to see the blue heads compete at another prestigious tourney where wrestlers earn reputations. That year was the year and that was the place where LCC Wrestling program earned its reputation. LCC was only a couple points behind Poway, it needed to win majority of its matches second day and for the Lamoor team to lose its finals match to place. This required a team effort. Buth gathered the troops outside the gym. 

“Guys we need pins, we need big wins. You need to go out there and  think of the team. Think of what it would mean to place here. This is exciting, we’ve never done this well before!” 

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That day at 5-Counties, wrestling for LCC ceased to be an individual sport. The rest of the matches were a flurry of take downs on edge of the mat, guys stretched out with toes pointed and barely within the circle.  Instinctively they looked back to check as the ref’s raised their arm with a points reward.

Finally, the deciding match arrived, Lemoor’s only competitor in the finals stepped on the mat. If he won, LCC would not place and if he lost, LCC would place at the 5-Counties for the first time in LCC’s short wrestling history. Lemoore left the mat without raising his hand to the sound of loud cheers in the LCC section as the team celebrated a team milestone. 

I spoke with Coach Ramirez sitting high up in the bleachers about what it takes to be a champion as we looked on at one nationally ranked wrestler battle another on the mat below. He described his maniacal climb to championships in college and after. He told me about note cards he would make with opponents’ names to be crossed off, and the laser focus it took to place at state. “It’s border-line insanity” he told me. It has to be.

Before finals we went to Tommy’s Burgers for a traditional 5-Counties dinner. Coach loves tradition. He loves Tommy Burgers  but the chilly just didn’t seem to sit well with Grubbs, he puked outside. Afterwards he let the guys go to  Boomer’s, conveniently located across the street. It’s a win win-kind of.  

Grubbs

Perhaps because of the talent, or in spite of it, Brian seems completely still as ordinary life appears to revolve around him. He radiates a confidence, stillness and unstoppable determination within. When Grubbs lost to Redlands East Valley in the semis by a point, he didn’t make a scene, he was quiet and then came back and pounded on the last two opponents to get his third place. There is only one place for aggression for Grubbs: the mat.

Moving back from Texas this year where he won the state title was not without hassle and 5-Counties was his first big tournament. He was out of shape and his next attempt would be at El Dorado where he lost by a couple points again to a freshman from Lemoore. I wondered if it was because he wasn’t used to going full six minutes since most his matches end without him breaking a sweat in the first or second period.

Mid-season he changed his routine and began to work out six times a week. The pressure is not just in his head,  he was born to a wrestling legacy: father and uncle state champions. Strangely, he started relatively late: eighth grade but at the end of ninth grade, less than two years later his  natural talent evident as he made it to state and placed second.

As a prospective state contender from San Diego, news cameras would sometimes film his matches and conduct interviews post wins. “You have to win, you’re our match of the day” said the cameraman to Grubbs at the Helix tournament. Cameraman didn’t need to worry. Grubbs  toyed with the opponent for a round, lifting him high up into the air from a double at the edge of the mat and carrying him back into the center on top of his shoulders as if it were a four year old niece.  Finally pinning him such that the opponent’s shoulder blades were flat on the mat while carrying his and Bryan’s entire weight; Grubbs, firmly attached in a leg ride on top. The move is so painful that often coaches would pull out their wrestlers giving Bryan a forfeit. Which is a shame, because for a wrestler, losing to greatness is more meaningful than winning 100 matches over a nobody.

   Such was the case at Torrey Pines dual.  While big tournaments are grueling and exhausting,  duals are often exciting and as emotionally charged. School rivalries often come to surface creating exciting matches with a lot of pride on the line. Such rivalry used to exist between San Dieguito and Torrey Pines. As the majority of San Dieguito staff and students moved to LCC so did the rivalry. Torrey Pines Coach, Jesse Mindlin,  wrestled for Coach Field at San Dieguito a couple years before me and his assistant coach Jon Mendis had come to several UCSD practices before. LCC Freshman and JV Coach Tommy Hernandez also wrestled for Torrey Pines and coached with me at San Dieguito. Retired coach Field was as usual in attendance. According to legend, a San Dieguito wrestler had beaten Buth in high school before Coach Buth won the state title, with a picture of the pin still hanging on the San Dieguito wrestling room wall. .

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Team Huddle, Coach Don Williams at the right.

Leagues

The winner of the match would be the League Champion of Avocado League. Coaches may stop competing on the mat, but the spirit of competition never leaves as we continue to compete through the kids we coach. How well they perform speaks how we do as coaches and how we run a program. You can’t help but feel that each wrestler you send on the mat is a match between you and the other coach. In fact it may be even more intense since when you’re wrestling on the mat, you can’t see your opponent’s face.

It felt like this was our year and our guys won match after match winning the League Championship.  Kyle pounded on his opponent and swallowed a lot of blood from a cut lip to prevent stopping the  match. His lips were crimson as he got off the mat as if covered in lipstick. 

“You’re bleeding” someone said. “I know” Switz replied, “I didn’t want the ref to stop the match.”

 Bryan’s opponent went up a weight class leaving Grubbs without a match, however he didn’t get much of a break by going against TJ Grissafe. It hurt to see Nick Nelson lose. Nelson, a tall, lanky Greco-Roman wrestler is amazing to watch because of his unorthodox style. The varsity heavyweight, freshmen Daughter, also lost to a cocky heavyweight senior. I regretted that Daughter wouldn’t meet him next year on the mat. Revenge would have been sweet.

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Sophomore TJ Grisaffe at a home meet.

CIF’s

Next week at CIFs, Grubbs’s final match didn’t last very long, only about a minute thirty while Taylor Cox battled a short behemoth on the other side. Cox wrestled a kid from Bonita Vista. His opponent had the classic face of an Aztec statue: triangular, flat forehead, small chin and the body of a small tank. Confident, having beaten Cox before, he would pick up the leg of our medium built 189-pounder over his head and launch Cox out of the circle. Cox wrestled smart, technically outmaneuvering him at every corner. Finally taking a small lead to win the CIF section along with four other Mavericks. Yet when I arrived five hours earlier, the team didn’t look well. At noon, the tall and lanky 160lb Schaffer seemed to be wrestling without motivation and 140lb Brent, wrestling far stronger and taller 150lb opponents, was losing the battle. Guys were falling off the bracket, one after another. Coach had a few minutes before the next round and in the windy hallway of Scripps Ranch High School he summoned a sermon like a pastor, if a pastor had a deep booming voice. “If you don’t feel ready, come see me! Come see me! I’ll pump you up! I’ll pump you up!”  

The rest of the matches were fought hard. Freshman Daughter, the blonde, pudgy, goofy, baby-faced good-natured heavyweight just barely lost a medal match.  Cody Williams, another baby-faced short and stocky 215lb fought one Goliath after another. Each time we thought that “this is it, this is the end of Williams at CIF” and that is probably was what the Goliaths thought as well, until they realized they couldn’t take him down, giving the 16 year old fifth place.

 Master’s

The room was rowdy and distracted when training for Master’s. Wrestlers seemed unmotivated and hard to control. Buth was forced to charge and yell at the kids. However the week before State,  with qualifiers from San Marcos, Torrey Pines and Ramona practicing along side LCC, the atmosphere was strictly business. Guys were quiet and professional. Each take down landed with a loud thud. Little encouragement was needed during the practice and each practice progressed like clockwork. There was a static feeling determination. 

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Warming up

Coach Ryan Williams was the only state champ on the Champions board from LCC thus far. Having wrestled for Cal Poly, his ears are flat and calloused; a display of sacrifice and hard work. His dad, Assistant Coach Don Williams is a cop and his brother Cody is the tough little “David”. He has a teacher’s ability to command attention and call out the troublemakers. Changing them in the process from scoundrels into champions like with TJ Girsaffe (Sophomore State Champion) and Billy Reyes (Master’s Champion). I watched TJ transform from an immature and sometimes weaselly kid to a confident leader, leading the wrestlers by word and action in practice.

We sat by a stack of green rolled up mats at the edge of the room. I took my shoes off one by one, exhausted at the end of the practice. Buthie left leaving coach Ryan Williams, coach Mindlin and a couple of Torrey Pines state qualifiers in the room.

“You just battle. Match by match, period by period.” He clobbered an imaginary opponent’s neck with his thick forearms as he spoke, “Go out there and give it all, because what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll lose?” Williams recounted in front of us, with a fighter’s spark in the eyes of how he took first at state. 

STATE

The team ended the season ranked 14th in California. I drove up to Bakersfield by myself as I couldn’t allow myself to repeat the feeling I had at Master’s by staying home. I drove up the second day to see Switzler and Grubbs battle for 4th and 1st    respectively. From excited forum posts I knew that  Grubbs pinned his way to the semis and won the semi-finals as he did all of his matches that year: without giving up a single offensive point. One person on a San Diego Wrestling forum said that “Grubbs is on a mission.” 

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Switzler wrestling for third at the CIF State Championships.



Bryan met Zimmer of Clovis West HS at the final match. Zimmer has been giving Grubbs nightmares for the past two years, ever since beating Grubbs in the semis two years ago at State. One little slip up would win him the match and one slip up could cost him. We had seen him this year get so close just to see a win slip past his fingers. 

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Grubbs vs Zimmer
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The two fought conservatively the first round. Gauging, probing each-other’s strengths and weaknesses, warming up the muscles, doing their best to not show too much of what they could do. They wrestled another round without scoring points. Zimmer took blood time driving the crowd insane with tension. They ended third period both with a point each for escapes. As double overtime began, all Grubbs had to do was hang on and not let Zimmer escape and he would win. But Zimmer put in a half and looked like he was about to get points the same way that Grubbs beat Helix earlier in the season. As he cranked and cranked on Bryan’s neck, Grubbs lunged his arm throwing off Zimmer getting a reversal  to take a 3-1 lead in double overtime, and held on like a cowboy on a bull the last few seconds to winning the championship match. 

A feeling of euphoria swept through the crowd. The match condensed the emotional roller-coaster of four seasons into ten minutes. The crowd roared as Bryan ran across the mat after shaking opponent’s coaches’ hands and leaped into Coach Buth’s arms. Years of work, expectations, desire to be the best was finally achieved.  As for us, the reward was jubilation at  the end  of sitting a match that kept us tense in our seats and hearts pounding. Finally lifting the worries and expectations with his win.

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Switzler took fourth. If it seemed somewhat not surprising to me, it was because I knew he could and I guess I was the only one aside from maybe Kyle himself and our mutual Jr. High Coach Asamoto. In some ways Grubbs was a bigger gamble because the only question with Bryan was whether he could do it in spite of the pressure;  the magnitude of pressure that Kyle didn’t have. The cocky attitude he had as a freshman on the mat at the LCC Freshman Championships was replaced by the awe, humility and child like glee as he walked in the procession around the arena and up the stairs onto the stage to get the recognition with the rest of the state placers.

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Kyle Switzler and Coach Buth after his fourth place win.

Epilogue

And what of the coaches? Like Dan Gable says: “You can never expect to live on a reputation.” Buth, Coach Daniel Ramirez and I talked late into the night as we sat at  Denny’s long after the parents and wrestlers left the celebratory midnight dinner to rest and dream. We talked about the good, the bad, and the possibilities and rebuilding next year after all the seniors depart. Coach Buth re-told of his previous highs and lows, what it means to be a high school coach with graduating seniors and the fresh start of a new group of freshmen.  As he saw it, you never know, this may could be the pinnacle or only the beginning.

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Coaches Michael and Danny Ramirez

Getting ready for Frosh/Soph state, at the last practice of the season, one of the young guys, a freshman, came up to me and asked to drill. Next year he will be on varsity, and I will be working with him and the other young guns coming up. Their excitement and determination excited me about next year even if there was still work to be done this year.

 “You guys are our new varsity, if you come in and work hard, it will be your names up above” Ryan Williams says to them and points to the plaques with rows of names of CIF and Master’s Champs.  Admittedly, I am a little sad to see the records of my heroes disappear one by one like an old memory. The irony is that as coaches, we train the kids, making them better, stronger, faster and more confident. We help them break our own records and records of our heroes. Those records are a reflection of our dedication and efforts. Nothing beats that feeling, not even even the feeling, of having your hand raised on a mat.

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