After making some notable gains with last year's team, it's now back to square one for the Lake Oswego wrestling squad.

The Lakers' wrestling program has a long history of struggling to attract a sufficient number of quality athletes. That trend seemed to be reversing itself last year when several football players turned out for the school's mat team. That led to some improved performances, including a rare victory over rival Lakeridge.

But the comeback appeared to make a 360-degree turnaround this fall when just 16 kids turned out for preseason practices. Among those who failed to report were John Clanton, a 215-pounder who was Lake Oswego's lone representative at last season's state meet. Also missing was Ryan Amacher, who was expected to contend for a state berth at 285 pounds.

That leaves the Lakers with a minimal amount of experience at the varsity level. That was evident when Lake Oswego lost its first two league meets (to Oregon City and Milwaukie) by a combined score of 152-9. But head coach Chad Smith is remaining surprisingly upbeat.

'Losing those top two guys was tough,' Smith said. 'But I've got a good group of kids that still want to be here.'

The wrestling program depended a great deal on the football team as a source for talent. With the football team's high level of success over the last decade or so, it had been become an attractive sport for many of the top athletes in the school. But Smith said several of the would-be wrestlers decided not to turn out for his squad this year after the football team, which was ranked No. 1 in the state, suffered a heartbreaking loss in the playoff quarterfinals.

'We had a lot of football guys say they would come out and they didn't,' a disappointed Smith said. 'Wrestling would have been one of the best things for them.'

With Clanton, Amacher and some of the others no longer in the program, 152-pound junior Max D'Annibale now looks like the team's leader.

He won his weight class at a tournament at Benson earlier this month, and he was second at the Sandy Invitational. Plus, in a dual meet against league favorite Oregon City, D'Annibale registered his team's only points with a 9-5 decision.

Smith also is expecting good things from 189-pound sophomore Josh Kennedy and 160-pound junior Kenny Johnson, but neither of them wrestled against Oregon City.

With an inexperienced team that's not very deep, the Lakers could take their lumps in the Three Rivers League, which Smith believes is the toughest wrestling conference in the state. But the Lakers have fared relatively well when they ventured outside the league.

Ultimately, though, Smith wants Lake Oswego to rule the TRL. He believes that will happen in another five years. He said the key will be the development of his youth wrestling program, which attracted 16 kids (from grades first through sixth) for its first day of training on Monday.

'It was awesome to see that many kids turn out,' Smith said. 'Seeing that was a huge boost to my spirits.'

All 16 of those kids attend school on the north side of Oswego Lake, but Smith said he is more than willing to train Lakeridge kids as well if they are willing to turn out.

Another encouraging sign for Smith was the fact that he was able to attract to two quality assistant coaches to help with the high school program. One of those is Chad's younger brother, Derek Smith, who wrestled at the University of Oregon. The other is former Portland State wrestler Bret McDonald, who will also be running the kids program.

'Coach McDonald is an amazing coach,' Smith said. 'I can't tell you how lucky I am to have that guy.'

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