Matthew Johnson and Collin Purinton could each bring home a 113-pound state title this winter

by: COURTESY PHOTO: FRANK JOHNSON - Forest Grove sophomore Matthew Johnson (left) and Banks junior Collin Purinton have become close friends after the two wrestlers started training together late last season.When Matthew Johnson steps onto the mat at the Class 6A state wrestling tournament in February, he’ll have the luxury of knowing that none of his opponents will be as tough as the ones he faces almost every day in practice.

Johnson, a Forest Grove sophomore, will be a strong favorite to capture the 6A state title at 113 pounds this winter after turning in the most dominant freshman campaign in school history, going 38-7 last season and winning both district and regional championships, plus a freestyle state title at 126 pounds in the offseason.

Those credentials are impressive, but they pale in comparison to his two training partners — his older brother Josh, now a sophomore at Clackamas Community College and a two-time high school state champion, and Banks junior Collin Purinton, the reigning 4A state champ at 106 pounds.

“It’s exciting to see Josh and Colin and Matthew go at it,” said Frank Johnson, Matthew’s father and the Forest Grove varsity wrestling coach.

“Josh is older and stronger, so he’s a challenge for Matthew, but they’ve been wrestling each other for a long time so they know each other pretty well. Colin is so, so tough. I think he’s the best 113-pounder in the state, at any level. Training with him has helped Matthew improve tremendously.”

Johnson and Purinton connected late last season when each was searching for a training partner that would test their skills and push them to improve. Purinton was coming off a broken hand and looking to sharpen his skills before the state tournament; Johnson was looking to add extra workout sessions against another top-notch wrestler.

“Some that don’t understand wrestling view it as solely an individual sport,” said Collin’s father, Lyal Purinton. “They don’t understand that a piece of every wrestling medal or trophy earned really belongs to the partners that helped that wrestler achieve it. Without them there would be no success.

“For Collin to be successful in a tournament like the state championships, he needed to find good wrestlers that weighed slightly more than him, moved quick and challenged him. Collin identified Matthew as one that could help in his quest to improve.”

Through their training sessions, a friendship quickly developed between the two wrestlers, and the duo continued to practice together during the offseason and into the start of the 2013-14 campaign.

“It is interesting how a common interest in a sport can create an opportunity for two people in different towns to come together and work on a common goal,” Lyal Purinton said. “In the process of working on their individual goals, both improve, develop a bond and a friendship based on respect.

“Collin’s and Matthew’s relationship has developed in much this way. Prior to becoming wrestling partners, they knew each other but not real well. Through working together they developed a respect for each other.”

Despite knowing each other for only a short while, Johnson’s respect for Purinton is immense.

“Collin is way better than me,” the Forest Grove sophomore said with a chuckle. “I remember looking at Josh and I always thought of him as one of the top guys. No one could ever take him down. Now when we work out (together), Colin’s getting the best of him sometimes.

“It’s nice to have another Josh around. Those guys are really pushing me and I feel like I’m learning a lot from both of them.”

While Johnson had a superlative freshman season, it ended in heartbreaking fashion with a loss to Pacific Conference rival Max McGee at the state tournament, leaving Johnson one win shy of a spot on the medal stand.

He hopes this season will end differently.

“We have a wall in the wrestling room with all the (Forest Grove) state placers on it,” Johnson said. “I look up there and expect to see my name, and it’s weird that it’s not up there.

“I plan on being state champ this year, but I don’t know if that’s God’s plan for me. I just try to stay humble and not get too full of myself.”

“He wants to win the state title. He most definitely does,” Frank Johnson said. “He’s a hard-working kid, but he knows there are no guarantees. He learned that last year.”

For Purinton, the bullseye will be squarely on his back after capturing a state title last season. While he has gone up a weight class to 113 pounds, the junior will still be a prohibitive favorite to stand atop the podium at the 4A state tournament later this winter.

“There’s definitely a target on his back,” Banks wrestling coach Dan Herb said. “Everyone knows who Collin is, so he’s going to get everyone’s best effort every time he’s out on the mat.”

For his part, Purinton isn’t getting caught up in any premature state title talk.

“I’m pretty much just working hard right now, trying to stay on top and keep a positive mindset,” he said. “I’m just going to take it one tournament at a time and try not to get too far ahead of myself.”

Purinton learned the value of patience last year when he broke his right hand during a tournament in LaGrande and sat out most of the season. He wasn’t medically cleared until just before the Cowapa League district tournament, but once healthy he stormed through the district, regional and state tournaments.

“The doctor gave me permission to wrestle, but it still didn’t feel quite right,” Purinton said of last year’s injury. “It felt really weird, but once I got to state I realized I had to go out and wrestle as hard as I could. It just shows that if you work hard, good things will happen.”

Purinton put that strategy to work again after the high school season, when a training mishap left him out of commission with a broken right arm.

“I’ve been wrestling for nine or 10 years and haven’t had a serious injury that whole time, then to have it happen twice in six months — it was kind of weird,” he said. “But it actually made me want to work even harder. Having to sit out and not be able to wrestle was tough.”

With both injuries fully healed and countless practice hours logged against his friend and training partner, Purinton goes into this season with high expectations.

“In my opinion, he’s the best 113-pounder in the state,” Herb said. “But he’s still got to prove it. There are some tough guys out there and he’s going to get some battles.”

No matter what happens on the mat this season, both fathers agree that the training partnership and subsequent friendship has been beneficial for their sons.

“Colin is definitely the kind of kid you would want your own kid to hang around,” Frank Johnson said. “They’re good kids and they’re good for each other. They’ve developed a really good friendship and it’s because of wrestling.”

Lyal Purinton agrees.

“If, through all the hard work, just one of the bonds that a wrestler makes ... endures a lifetime, it will all have been worth it,” he said. “Many times over.”

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