Southern Oregon has been home to many prominent wrestling duals over the years, mostly thanks to the history of programs like Crater, Eagle Point...
When a season comes to a close, it's hard not to play the "what-if" game.
Last weekend's state wrestling tournament provided plenty of intrigue for that, and not just for the sport of wrestling. The Spears brothers of Sheldon High in Eugene took care of that.
In an unusual twist for the state tourney, senior Chet Spears earned the heavyweight title at the Class 6A level after receiving a forfeit in the finals from his junior brother, Wyatt. Sophomore Willy Spears, the District 4 regional champion, advanced to the semifinals at 220 pounds, but consecutive losses to the Nos. 1 and 3 seeds "limited" him to fifth place.
Why is this important to southern Oregonians? The brother's father is Harvey Spears, who graduated from South Medford High in 1991 and wrestled and played football for the Panthers. Their mother, Gretchen, was a former standout in volleyball, basketball and softball at South Medford.
The boys, who are also standout linemen in football, built their early lives in Lakeview and Klamath Falls before moving to Cottage Grove and, ultimately, Eugene for their high school days at Sheldon High.
The "what-if" world spins when you ponder what might have been had the Spears family remained rooted in Medford.
"You think about it but it's something that goes on all over the place," said South Medford wrestling head coach Dave Alonzo. "Parents move away and the kids don't always go to the same school as the parents did. You usually don't hear that much about it but maybe because I'm at South now and the level of wrestling the Spears brothers are at right now, it kinda brings it more to your attention."
Chet Spears was last year's 6A state runner-up at heavyweight, or 285 pounds, while Wyatt won USA Wrestling freestyle and Greco-Roman cadet division national titles last summer. Along with Willy, the Spears brothers were part of Sheldon's state championship football team last fall, and Chet has already committed to play football at Western Oregon next season.
Wyatt, whose first love is wrestling, is weighing an offer to spend a year with USA Wrestling at the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo. — the same place ex-Phoenix star Eleazar De Luca has been training this past year — starting in August.
The impact of such top-tier talent in the wrestling room would be immeasurable, according to Alonzo.
"I think just even one guy, much less all three brothers, would make a big difference," said Alonzo. "You get one guy who makes it to the state finals and it kinda increases an excitement that gets other kids out and makes them want to stick it out."
"It's especially big, too, because they play football, and that's something we've had trouble with at South, not getting football players out," he added. "You get one of those guys out like that, who is obviously good at football but wins a state title in wrestling, and others see that and see that it can go hand in hand and that gets other football players out."
Chet Spears weighed in at 350 pounds toward the end of the football season and had to lose nearly 70 pounds to qualify for the 285-pound weight class. Wyatt Spears has the same 6-foot-2 frame but watches what he eats a little more than his older brother, while Willy Spears is on his way to shadow his brothers at 6-foot and 230 during the football season.
"That's three-fifths of your offensive line right there," said Alonzo, who also serves as a freshman football assistant coach.
With the Spears brothers shouldering the load, Sheldon finished 11th with 59 points. That figure was more than North Medford (13th with 48 points) and South Medford (33rd with four points) combined.
Throw the Spears brothers in the Black Tornado lineup, which had two semifinalists in Reid Shipley and Trent Wilson, and North Medford finishes, without any match result changes, fifth. State history, however, has shown that teammates tend to build off each other's success, so who knows how the Spears' winning ways translates to results for the likes of Shipley, Wilson, Austin Mitchell, Kaden Johnson, et. al.
For the record, the decision to have Wyatt forfeit the state championship to older brother Chet was made well before the two stepped on the mat Saturday and capped the heavyweight division with a hug.
The Spears parents, particularly Gretchen, aren't fond of seeing the boys wrestle one another, especially since the last time the older two boys went at it in competition — the boys and their father famously knock heads on a routine basis in the family room — Wyatt broke Chet's arm while trying to throw him. Chet still went on to win the match during a club tournament last summer but reportedly wouldn't talk to his brother for a month.
The boys previously settled another youth tournament championship with an impromptu battle of rock-paper-scissors, with Wyatt walking away with the title on a best-of-three basis.
THE SPEARS BROTHERS notwithstanding, it was also hard to overlook the drought Medford wrestling has had over the years when it comes to individual titles or team trophies.
Crater won seven out of nine team titles from 1998 through 2006 and has secured at least one individual title in seven of the past 10 years, falling short of making it 8-for-10 when Tyler Thomas and Chase Mackey were upended in this year's finals.
Phoenix had a streak of seven straight years of earning at least one individual title, and Izzy Rubio was in the running Saturday night to make it eight straight years before coming up short.
Eagle Point finished among the top two teams over a five-year stretch from 1985-89 under head coach Bob Bergen, winning three state titles, and has routinely been in the trophy hunt under current head coach Kacey McNulty to go with a handful of individual championships.
Since Medford split into two schools in 1986, however, the fortunes at North Medford and South Medford haven't been as good as their peers. North Medford has never crowned an individual champion, and it earned its first team trophy with third place in 2010. South Medford hasn't earned a team trophy but has had three individual champions — for five titles — thanks to Les Gutches (1989-91), Jason Gutches (1994) and Ian Taylor (2000).
"It's kind of a cycle and it's hard to get out of," Alonzo said of Medford's mat issues. "Kids don't really want to do wrestling in Medford because we haven't had success, but you're not ever going to get success if kids don't take a chance and come out or give it a try."
At places like Crater, Eagle Point and Roseburg, the culture of wrestling is more prevalent and that helps lend itself to more excitement surrounding those programs.
"In Medford, wrestling isn't the cool thing to do," added Alonzo, "but in Roseburg, for example, you go to those duals up there and their home section of the stands is packed and all the students are there cheering on their classmates. It's kinda like football is down here you could say. They get 80 to 100 kids out for their wrestling program, and a lot of those kids have been wrestling since they were 4 years old."
Alonzo said that longevity in wrestling, along with the turnover from one family member to another, has been missing in Medford.
"One thing I see there, too, is a lot of parents who used to wrestle for those programs still involved and younger brothers and cousins coming through now and then to keep the cycle going," he said. "I don't know if we have small families here in Medford or what, but it seems like we haven't had a lot of brothers (of wrestlers) coming through."
Alonzo said plenty of work is being done these days to build up the local youth programs — a key factor in Roseburg's success under Steve Lander — but those wrestlers haven't yet made it to the high school level.
North advanced nine wrestlers to state and South four, and Alonzo said another difference he's seen among the wrestlers who place at the state level is their offseason dedication.
"You very rarely see a guy in the state finals who doesn't wrestle in the spring or summer," said Alonzo, whose program included Thomas before he transferred to Crater this year. "I'd say 90 percent of the state placers do some wrestling in the spring and summer. We get a few guys, for instance the ones we had go to state, coming up a little bit and working out in the spring and summer, but that's what it takes if you really want to reach that next level."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry