CENTRAL POINT — There's a fresh face roaming around the Crater High wrestling room these days, but there's certainly nothing new about Greg Haga.

CENTRAL POINT — There's a fresh face roaming around the Crater High wrestling room these days, but there's certainly nothing new about Greg Haga.

Or, at least, so he thought.

Being removed from a program he led to eight state titles and two runner-up showings in a 14-year span apparently has had an effect on Haga, as well as those around him.

"What I've seen from Greg so far is you can really see him hungry again," says longtime assistant Denny Walters. "All of us assistant coaches feed off of that again, too, along with all the kids."

"It's been a great 21/2 weeks of practice and I think what I've seen most is his motivation is back," adds Walters. "He and I talked about that and before this whole thing went down, I think he was kinda close to retirement. Coming back now has added a little fuel to the fire for him."

The "whole thing" Walters refers to is a 11/2 year suspension placed on the head coach by the Oregon School Activities Association after it ruled Haga had allowed an ineligible wrestler to participate under an assumed name during a Hawaii tournament and also allowed alumni to participate in practice on six occasions.

It's not a situation Haga is particularly proud of, despite some extenuating circumstances, but he has paid his dues and is ready to put it all behind him as the Comets embark on their 2010-11 season and his 21st as head coach.

"We haven't even talked about last year or the situation," says Haga. "We're too busy focusing on the task at hand this year and trying to become the best team we can be."

What can be said is Haga definitely made the best use of his time away from the high school program.

With Walters running the show in his absence — leading Crater to a runner-up finish in 2009 at the Class 5A state tournament before having the school's streak of 12 straight state trophies snapped by a sixth-place showing last year — Haga turned his attentions to the future Comets. He worked diligently with the club wrestling program and coached the seventh and eighth graders at Scenic Middle School.

"The middle school level is a totally different experience," says Haga. "Young kids at middle school win and you'd think they won the Olympics. You'd see them running up into the crowd with mom and dad, getting hugs and all that. The sheer joy of competing like that was fun to be part of."

There were, however, a few hiccups along the way before any hugs could be doled out.

"My first day at middle school I said, 'Everyone get in a high crotch,' and I looked around and about six kids knew what that was," says Haga.

Still, having to focus on the basics and tread a little more lightly around the younger kids than he was used to had its advantages, none more than seeing his wrestlers finally turn the corner.

"Especially with the inexperienced guys, there's definitely some frustrations but also some joy when they learn moves and get excited about it all," says Haga. "That's something I really enjoy."

Ultimately, Haga says being removed from the high school grind was reinvigorating.

"I definitely think it recharges the batteries," he says of the time off. "I think it gets the juices flowing again a little also."

The only stumbling point in his transition back to the high school program was in getting used to some new faces and having everyone in the wrestling room reacquaint themselves to the true Haga experience.

"Some of them know me as the kind of the guy that helps with the middle school and the middle school guy that's less intense," Haga says with a laugh. "Some of them think I'm a nice guy."

Has that held true after putting them through the paces with his regular no-nonsense approach since practices began Nov. 15?

"I'm sure they have an idea right now that I might not be Santa Claus," adds Haga.

"Right now we're in the phase of getting tough," he continues. "In two or three weeks we'll work in being more technical. It's hard to work on technique when guys' tongues are hanging out."

While the kids may not carry the biggest smiles these days, Walters says he and fellow assistants Justin Godley, Taylor Wilkerson and Bill Jones are getting a kick out of having Haga back where he belongs.

"He's come in gung ho and has all these expectations of the kids working hard, our way or the highway," says Walters, noting he's happy to be back in an assistant's role. "There's only one way for success and that's working hard. We got away from that for a while just because we had so many studs, but it's back to where we have to get back on top again."

Spending time with the middle schoolers may have reminded him to impart some drills he hadn't utilized in a few years, but Haga insists that's about all that has changed for the Comets.

"You always go back and look at things that were successful for you and go back to what you know," he says, "but I don't think there's any new big secrets in wrestling. For me, work ethic in the mat room goes a long way."

If anything has changed it's a return to putting more prominence on the team's intrasquad scrimmage. In Haga's early days the team would go out in front of the home crowd with an official referee and wrestle challenge matches right down to determining the varsity and junior varsity spots at each weight. Haga is bringing that back at 7 tonight, with some performances even set under the mat lamp.

"We're going to have some pretty competitive matches," he says. "I think it's going to be pretty exciting."

The Comets, stocked with young talent, officially open their season at 11 a.m. Friday as part of the Phoenix High tournament. Crater stands to be led by junior Gerald Jakabosky and returning state placers Skyler Prislac (senior), Mike Macuk (senior), Chance Fahndrich (junior), Morgan Walters (sophomore), Brandon Montague (sophomore), Chase Mackey (sophomore) and Kody Gray (sophomore).

"All the kids have been great in the mat room and are working hard, and I think the kids will rise to the challenge in front of them," says Haga, whose team bumps up to the 6A level this season. "It wasn't that many seasons ago we were the team people were trying to knock off so I told them, 'If you have to pick, let's be that team.'"

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com