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Blue bloods in a blue-collar sport

Believe it, West Linn is emerging as a wrestling powerhouse

It doesn't take West Linn wrestling coach Doug Samorran long to note the irony in his program's success.

West Linn and wrestling.

That's not pro wrestling with all its glitz and glamour, but prep wrestling, which comes with a lot of sweat and suffering. It makes more sense that students in West Linn, where the median household income is nearly twice that of Portland, would be studying for college entrance exams rather than trying to win a state title in a sport that rarely gets television coverage.

But West Linn is a threat to win its first Class 4A state title in wrestling this year.

'We're definitely a blue-collar sport in a white-collar town,' says Samorran, who has been with the Lions as an assistant or head coach since 1991. 'But that's something we take a lot of pride in. We put a lot of effort into building our program and keeping it strong.'

West Linn made its mark last winter by finishing second in the Class 4A state meet.

The Lions will be in action this weekend in the Oregon Classic in Redmond, which features some of the state's best programs.

Physical aspect appeals

If West Linn wins the state title this year, it would be the first school in the Portland area to win the championship since Hillsboro did in 1990. In the time since, five schools Ñ Crater, Newberg, Thurston, La Grande and Hermiston Ñ have combined to win all 14 titles.

Building a successful program in Portland has been tough, Samorran says, because there is so much competition from other sports, including some that demand year-round training. And there's all the finer points of the sports, such as weigh-ins before every event.

'We're something of an unusual program because most of the top schools, the ones that are strong enough to win the state title, are from small towns Ñ close-knit communities that can focus on wrestling,' says Samorran, who wrestled in college at Southern Oregon. 'It's a lot harder for a town like West Linn to focus on wrestling.'

Samorran and his coaching staff work to bring out the toughness of the sport in their athletes. And that has paid off.

Matt Kim, a senior who also has a 4.0 GPA and is bound for Stanford, says wrestling appeals to him for a simple reason: the controlled brutality.

'I just like to beat on people,' says Kim, who won the state title at 119 pounds last year and is ranked No. 1 at 130. 'I like the toughness aspect of the sport.'

Senior Nick Locke, who is ranked No. 1 at 171 pounds, played on the football team and also plays lacrosse. But the physical contact in wrestling, and the team's ability to challenge the state's best programs, keeps him working hard in practices.

'The most popular teams at our school aren't really that good,' says Locke, who helped the Lions reach the state playoffs in football (where they lost 43-7 to Jesuit in the first round). 'It's in the less popular spectator sports such as wrestling and tennis where we have a chance to win state.'

Senior Brandon Goss, who also played football and is on the school's baseball team, says the state title is on the team's mind this season.

'It's a goal for us to shoot for,' Goss says. 'We want to win state.'

Building a winner

Samorran, in his fourth year as head coach, says the program has 55 wrestlers this year, making it among the strongest in the state. He credits the district's junior program with developing many of the more successful wrestlers.

Locke says he started wrestling in fifth grade. Kim says he started in sixth grade.

The junior program recently renamed itself in honor of longtime coach Kirk Spencer, who died last year. It's now the Kirk Spencer Mat Club.

Samorran says part of the difficulty of this season has been moving practices to an elementary school. Construction at the West Linn campus has taken over the wrestling room. But the Lions are continuing their general upward momentum toward the top of the state.

In a recent poll issued by wrestling insider Richard Rockwell, West Linn was ranked second behind Pendleton. Newberg and Crater were third and fourth, respectively.

If Kim wins his weight this year, he would be the school's first wrestler to graduate with two state titles. Since the Oregon School Activities Association began holding state wrestling championships in 1948, West Linn has won nine titles at individual weights, but has never had two champions in the same year.

Kim is among six returnees who placed at the state meet last year and Samorran says his squad includes several more wrestlers who could place this year.

Winning the prestigious Crater Invitational last year in Central Point showed West Linn that it had great potential.

'We needed the experience of winning at big-time tournaments, like winning at Crater last year,' Kim says. 'We kind of got that last year. Now it's time for that to pay off.'

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