Always at home on the wrestling mats
MHS grad helps revive Alaska prep teamAt the first wrestling practice of a new year, the warmup rituals continue.
Wrestlers are running around the red and blue Madras mats. This practice, the team has a visitor on his holiday break.
It is former White Buffalo wrestler Scott Armstrong. His name is on the wall of state medalists (for taking second in 1998 at 140 pounds as a senior after a fifth in 1997 at 134). Armstrong is now a wrestling coach in Anchorage, Alaska, but back in Madras to visit family.
Even though his season is over, where else would a wrestling coach be but at a wrestling practice? He's already been in the Bend High wrestling room where his brother Jesse is an assistant coach (he was also Madras' first state champion in 2000 at 145 pounds). The older brother has bruises on his face from his mat time with Jesse.
"It's a good sibling rivalry," Armstrong of wrestling with his younger brother. The two were also teammates at Southern Oregon College. Both are the sons of Marsha Martinez and the late Frank Armstrong, plus the grandsons of Allen and Juanita Elston of Madras.
Once Armstrong finishes his running, he moves to a corner to do a specialized warmups. The leg lunges and contorted pushups are among the exercises which helped Armstrong earn Alaska's co-coach of the year honors.
Armstrong and Anchorage East co-coach Mark Hoffer received the honor following the season ending Dec. 15. They guided the Anchorage program to fourth in the 4A state tournament.
That was a big step for Anchorage East when fellow Alaska coaches voted on the coach of the year award. A score illustrates how far East Anchorage wrestling progressed.
The Thunderbirds lost a duel 84 to minus 2 the season before Armstrong and Hoffer took over (2004). That is, all the East wrestlers were pinned and one Thunderbird received unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of minus two points for the negative score.
Armstrong was at East that year, but not as a coach. He was just out of Southern Oregon College. The Madras native taught physical education, moving up to Alaska since East Anchorage "offered me a job."
Armstrong wanted to live in another part of the country and had a few friends in Alaska.
Once Armstrong and Hoffer took over, they had a selling job in a diverse school. Anchorage East is populated with Native Americans, blacks, Somoans along with whites.
"We're the most diverse team in Alaska," Armstrong said. "It really adds to the richness of our team."
At first, the coaches were in the halls trying to bring kids into the wrestling room.
"We'd had kids coming in asking `what's this wrestling all about.' Some would show up for a few days and others would stay," Armstrong said.
He and Hoffer became creative in practices to keep kids coming back. They used different training techniques and incorporated music into the practices.
Using 75-foot ropes in a strengthening regiment was one technique. The East wrestlers tried to make vertical or horizontal waves with the ropes, making the core and upper body muscles stronger.
Having the wrestlers do jumping routines with music blaring was an energizing addition to practice. That helped build up the hips, legs and create explosiveness.
"If we just ran for 30 minutes, a lot of kids would be gone," Armstrong said. "So, we found ways to make training more exciting. We're doing what I did myself to keep in shape. Since I'm doing it, this helps the kids buy into it."
The routines helped during a short season by Oregon standards. In Alaska, wrestling practices start on Oct. 6 with the season over on Dec. 15. This state's practices start on Nov. 5 with the season ending on Feb. 16.
"That schedule really condenses the season," Armstrong said. "Plus, we'd have matches on a Tuesday and most of our tournaments are two days (Fridays and Saturdays). So, that gives us only so much practice time."
It put a premium on keeping the wrestlers free from injuries. East went through the season without any major injuries, the coach said.
Armstrong credited an "open mat" program he ran before the formal practices started for a healthy team. It emphasized getting in shape so "we could wrestle hard everyday when practices started."
Wrestling in Alaska is influenced by freestyle, Armstrong said. Thus, leg rides are usually shorter.
"Up there, if a guy is riding on top for more than 15 seconds, there's usually a stall call by the ref and they start over," Armstrong said. "When Alaska kids go to a national tournament, they have to adjust."
In the Alaska state tourney, East moved up the standings each season Armstrong coached. The Thunderbirds were 15th among 20 teams that first season. East moved up to eighth last season.
East had four state champions (the most of any 4A school) plus three other medalists to score 160 points. Yet, 4A champion Colony had 13 medalists without any state champs to score 232 points.
East's regional tourney sent five to state while Colony's sent six.
"It becomes a matter of depth at state," Armstrong said. "Some schools are able to qualify two full teams. So, those guys earning third or fourth can pile up a lot of points."
For Armstrong, the real reward goes beyond trophies and medals.
State champ Dustin Maxwell (125 pounds) is such a story. Maxwell was academically ineligible to wrestle as a freshman and sophomore. He competed in freestyle tournaments where Armstrong knew about him.
"There, you could just show up and go," said Armstrong of how he first knew Maxwell. "We (Hoffer and Armstrong) were able to use wrestling as an avenue to talk about life."
Maxwell spent part of his younger life homeless. He was able to wrestle at East the past two seasons, winning state freestyle and Greco-Roman titles in addition to the prep title last month. The possibility of college looms.
"A lot of kids at East are rough around the edges and making tough life decisions at that age." Armstrong said. "Now, I wish I'd been a psychology major to be able to understand what these kids are going through."
"Some of the kids we're able to reach, and some we just can't help," he said. "Whatever they're going to do with their lives, if we can give them a sense of accomplishment, that's a great thing for them."