Viking wrestlers find shrinking budgets a tough foe to overcome
Portland State wrestling has tradition. It has Rick Sanders, Anthony Amado and Dan Russell and national collegiate championships in 1967, '89 and '90.
Since the move up to NCAA Division I in 1996-97, though, the Vikings have had lean pickings. Their high mark was a 9-13 dual-meet record in 2001-02. And the going has never been tougher than this season.
PSU finished its dual-meet season 0-9 in Pac-10 competition and 1-15 overall; the sole victory, 38-9, was over NAIA Simon Fraser. The Vikings were blanked five times Ñ including 52-0 by Cal State-Bakersfield and 49-0 by Oregon State Ñ and fell to such opponents as Southern Oregon and Pacific.
'It is kind of embarrassing,' says Eddie Dahlen, PSU's best hope in the Pac-10 championships that begin today at Tempe, Ariz. 'But a lot of the scores don't reflect how hard our guys have wrestled. Even though we have been blanked a few times, a lot of the matches were tight.'
Part of the problem is budget. Portland State can spend $50,000 annually on wrestling, of which $20,000 must be raised by the program through fund-raisers such as an auto raffle and a fireworks stand before Independence Day.
'I spent 13 days sleeping in a tent in a G.I. Joe's parking lot,' says Marlin Grahn, in his 20th year as PSU coach.
The budget pales in comparison with those of most of the school's opponents, which offer the NCAA limit of 9.9 scholarships. Portland State can give only 2 1/2 to three full rides, which are divided up into partials for several wrestlers.
Additionally, Portland State lost three starters to injuries Ñ two before the season began Ñ and another pair of starters became academically ineligible. Grahn has been forced to fill his lineup with freshmen Josh Gustafson (0-19 at 165 pounds) and Lucas Hambleton (5-16 at 133), sophomores Josh Carroll (1-12 at 141) and Allen Kennett (4-15 at 197), and junior Nick Gomeza (0-15 at 174).
'Those kids never intended to be starters when they came to school,' Grahn says, 'but I respect them more than anybody. They have sucked it up and gotten so much better, are so much farther along than they should be. They should be kids you stick in there once in a while. It just hasn't worked out that way.
'It is not so embarrassing as people would think. I don't like losing, but we have been devastated with things that usually don't happen. Everybody has injuries, but do they all have to be starters? We are limited to only so many dollars in our program, and when most of the kids getting money are either ineligible or hurt, it is tough to compete.'
Still in business
Not that Grahn is complaining. Twice Ñ in 1996 and '97 Ñ Portland State announced it was dropping its wrestling program for financial purposes, only to have student organizations, alumni and boosters move in to save it.
'The reality is, I am happy to have a program,' Grahn says.
So is Dahlen, the junior from Vancouver's Evergreen High who goes into the Pac-10 meet ranked third at 149 pounds. The former Washington state 129-pound high school champion is 16-10 this season, with two-point losses to the wrestlers seeded ahead of him at the championship meet Ñ Arizona State's Patrick Williams and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's Matt Cox.
'Eddie is very good,' Grahn says. 'He lost a 5-4 decision on riding time to Nebraska's Travis Shufelt, who is ranked fourth nationally. I expect Eddie to finish in the top three and qualify for nationals.'
Dahlen wanted to stay close to home to wrestle in college. He knew of Portland State's wrestling heritage, having begun his career as an eighth-grader at North Portland's Peninsula Wrestling Club.
'I knew some of those guys at Peninsula who had gone to Portland State,' Dahlen says. 'They gave me some props for going to their alma mater.'
Dahlen has felt the pain of his teammates as they have suffered through loss after loss this season.
'For a lot of them, this is their first year wrestling in college,' he says. 'I wish our team would be doing better, but we are a tight group. Some of the guys look up to me, and it drives me a little harder. Our record this year should help get us all fired up and ready to improve next year.'
Wait till next year
Grahn, who will lose only one senior with extended service, fully expects things to get better.
'I don't expect what happened this year to happen again,' he says. 'The good news is, (the PSU program is) going to be around. A lot of people think we have been gone. There was a lot of press when we were almost dropped, but not a lot when we weren't. We are down to the minimum number of programs you can have at Division I Ñ eight women's, six men's Ñ so I can tell recruits that, for sure, we will be here.
'This season never should have turned out the way it did. If we had all the kids we were supposed to have this year, we would have been in the middle of the Pac-10. We have everybody back and, by adding three grayshirts (late enrollees) who sat out this season, we can be very competitive next year.'