- Cliff Pfenning
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Their work ethic has produced big results in wrestling and swimming overhead deck: 4.5/30/1 Coaches Jeff and Linda Zerba are all-stars in the Cleveland community
Jeff and Linda Zerba don't see a lot of each other this time of year.
Jeff teaches health at Cleveland High and coaches a Warrior wrestling team that's among the best in the city. He also is starting a middle school wrestling program and competes in wheelchair rugby.
Linda, his wife, is launching a marketing company and is coach of Cleveland's improving swim team. She starts the Warriors' swim practice just about when Jeff is ready to call it a day.
'We have pretty busy schedules, but that's how we like it,' she says.
Both Zerbas were voted Coach of the Year for their sport by their Portland Interscholastic League counterparts last year. Cleveland's wrestling team is the defending league champion, and the swim team is catching up with the PIL's elite.
In the Cleveland community, the Zerbas are revered for their active lives.
'They're pretty impressive, all the things they do,' junior wrestler Brock Luedtke says. 'They're a dynamic duo.'
The state meets for wrestling and swimming are on the same weekend ÑÊ wrestling Feb. 20-22 at Memorial Coliseum, swimming Feb. 21-22 at Mt. Hood Community College.
For the Zerbas, that's where the payoff begins, in more ways than one.
'We have very busy lives in winter, but there's a little advantage in that our seasons end at the same time,' Jeff says. 'We get to see a lot more of each other in spring and summer.'
Not that the Zerbas will slow down that much. Both will be busy training for their first marathon.
Wrestling toward success
Cleveland has won two district titles (1995, 2002) under Zerba, 36, who has been with the program for 13 years, all but one as the head coach.
Zerba was a state champion wrestler at McLoughlin High in Milton-Freewater as both a sophomore and junior. He was competing in the Oregon Cultural Exchange finals when he was thrown and landed on his head. The impact dislocated his neck, and he's been using a wheelchair ever since.
Zerba says coaching from a wheelchair hasn't been that difficult.
'About the biggest problem we encounter is getting to matches,' he says. 'Sometimes the kids have to carry me up and down steps.'
The Cleveland program has ebbed and flowed along with Zerba's ability to focus energy on the high school. He's been reassigned twice to other schools, then has worked his way back to Cleveland. He has more than 40 wrestlers now, three of whom are girls.
Junior Brett Christy-Hamilton says Zerba is an inspirational figure in the Cleveland wrestling room, which is a converted auto shop.
'He treats us really well, and he's focused on us improving as wrestlers,' says Christy-Hamilton, a defending district champion. 'In some ways, I prefer to have a coach in a wheelchair. He explains things clearly, and we know we can count on him being there for us.'
Luedtke, who was part of a high-powered program in Tennessee as a freshman, says he has benefited from Zerba's coaching.
'He's very knowledgeable, and he really cares about us,' Luedtke says. 'I'd rate him as a 9 or 10 as a coach.'
Zerba got involved in wheelchair rugby eight years ago. The game, with four players to a side, takes place on a basketball court. He plays for the one active team in Oregon, the Portland Pounders. The Pounders will compete in the national tournament in April in Phoenix, Ariz.
Swimming toward success
Linda Jeo Zerba met Jeff while water skiing six years ago. They were married two years later. Shortly after they met, Cleveland had a coaching vacancy in swimming, and Jeff recommended Linda.
Linda Zerba, 32, attended Hermiston High, which is 40 miles from Milton-Freewater. She went to Princeton University and swam competitively.
She worked for Wieden & Kennedy before leaving three years ago to pursue her own marketing and branding company, Edge LLC. Currently, she and a partner are the lone employees, but they plan to have as many as 18 staffers before long.
With the same drive that's needed to start a company, Linda has built the Cleveland swim team from eight members to more than 30.
'She demands excellence from you,' says senior Ty Schwoefferman, the top contender in the district 50- and 100-meter freestyle. 'At first, I thought she was really strict, but I think I'm getting the value of that now. We're all getting the value of that now.'
Last season, the girls 200 freestyle relay team beat Lincoln, which is the benchmark for all competitors, at the district meet.
'That was something for us,' says Cleveland senior Michelle Payment, who went to state in two events last year. 'I think we all started to believe that we can compete with Lincoln, and that's helped more kids come out for the team.'
The Warriors practice at Southwest Community Center, near Wilson High, and they have moved up to the level of Lincoln, Grant and Wilson ÑÊthree schools that have won all of the city titles, boys and girls, since 1962.
'Having more guys out is turning out to be great,' Schwoefferman says. 'It pushes me harder, pushes everyone harder. I think I'm setting a personal record every week now.'
Zerba is happy with the results of her efforts.
'We're just starting to turn the corner and believe that we can beat Lincoln,' she says. 'It's taken a long time to get there, and most of the time it's just been me saying it.
'But now that we have some of the kids saying it, that is a reward in itself. Once you get kids believing in themselves, believing that they can be extraordinary, then you've put them in a whole different world. I love seeing that happen.'
The future waits for no one
As if the Zerbas weren't busy enough, they now face the trials of the Portland Public Schools' budget shortfalls.
The crisis mostly affects Jeff, who is encouraging his wrestlers to work on their fund-raising skills this week in time for the PIL Walkathon on Feb. 15, which happens to be the day of the district wrestling finals at Benson.
Meanwhile, the district's teachers are bracing for a potential strike and a work schedule that cuts 24 days from their pay.
'That's one-seventh of my income,' Jeff says. 'So I have to figure out how I'm going to make that up.'
Linda says adding a fund-raiser or two might make their days a little more hectic, but they'll find a way.
'I know for me, the busier I am the more productive I am,' she says. 'If I have too much time on my hands, I'll just sit around and watch TV.'