PIL coach grew up steeped in wrestling, and there's no leaving it

Mat Sprague, a two-time state wrestling champion at Benson High, left the sport in 1998, but something brought him back. After all those years, all those practices, all those matches and all that sweat Ñ maybe it was the smell.

'I missed being around the kids, being around something I had been around all my life,' says Sprague, 33. 'I had been out of wrestling, had a chance to get a regular job and make some decent money, but there was something missing.

'And that something was wrestling.'

Sprague was in the process of leaving his assistant coaching job at Thurston High in Springfield when Kip Kinkel opened fire on classmates in May 1998, killing two and wounding 22.

In 2003, he approached the Portland Interscholastic League office about becoming a volunteer coach. League officials suggested he grab the reins at Roosevelt, which was looking for its third coach in three years.

Sprague grappled with the idea before eventually taking the position. He now sees himself as the long-term solution to constant coaching change at the North Portland school, which has finished either ninth or 10th at the district meet the past three years.

'Of all the schools I could have wound up at, I think this is one of the biggest challenges within the state,' he says. 'The things that are part of this school, as far as challenges go Ñ it's a lot more than just getting kids out for wrestling. It's a lot more than that.

'But I love a challenge. I think I'll be here for quite a while.'

Wrestling and the Sprague family went hand in hand as Sprague grew up in Northeast Portland. His family ran the USA Oregon Athletic Club near Madison High, and older brother Marc won three state titles for the Senators from 1980-82.

Mat Sprague won a state title his freshman year at Benson in 1987 and was part of a culturalexchange team that competed in the Soviet Union. As a sophomore, he broke a bone in his neck, and he didn't win another title until 1990. He wrestled collegiately at the University of Oregon and was on his way to becoming a head coach, somewhere, when he decided to take time off in 1998.

Sprague found work selling cars and boats, and got married. His family also sold the gym.

After five years, Sprague is back coaching at the club level through USA Cobra wrestling, which his family runs at the club it used to own.

At Roosevelt, Sprague is stepping into a program with deep roots. Two of his wrestlers, Michael and Patrick Stauffer, can point to their father, David, who wrestled at Roosevelt in the late '60s.

The Stauffers are among Sprague's biggest fans.

'He knows a lot,' says Michael Stauffer, a senior who wrestles at 275 pounds. 'He's been through it all. And it's nice to have the same coach for two straight years.'

'He knows how to coach both club style and high school style,' says Patrick Stauffer, a sophomore. 'High school style is more about everyone doing the same thing over and over. Club style is more about what you need to do at that time, more suited to your needs. Our practices are very open, and I like that.'

The Stauffers rank high at Roosevelt in academics, too, with GPAs above 3.80.

Another Roughrider wrestler, Anthony Kelly, also appreciates Sprague's coaching.

'He shows up and he interacts with everyone,' says Kelly, who is among the PIL's best at 215 pounds this season. 'I can feel the program going up if he stays here.'

The Roughriders were winless in five PIL dual meets through Wednesday. Last year, just one Roosevelt wrestler reached the state tournament. And Roosevelt hasn't won the PIL district meet since 1980.

Sprague has gotten as many as 36 students to show up for a practice this winter, up from 24 last year, he says. But only about a dozen wrestlers show up full time. To become competitive, Sprague will need more wrestlers.

'I think the numbers are going to take a little while; it'll take me being around for some time before that gets better,' says Sprague, who has moved into a job as an educational assistant at Columbia High, a Portland alternative school. 'This is a blue-collar area, which is a good area for wrestling. But it's just going to take some time.'

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