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At South, wrestling becomes tough sell

Ken Wharry admits he's a little red-faced.

Anyone as dedicated to wrestling as Wharry would share his sentiment.

Midway through his third year as South Medford's coach, Wharry finds himself directing a handful of youngsters during workouts rather than the three dozen he anticipated this season.

When Roseburg visited for a Southern Oregon Conference dual match Thursday, Wharry could fill just seven of the 28 varsity and junior varsity weights.

It's really kind of embarrassing, admits the 37-year-old former NAIA national champion. Even though we have a couple of kids that are doing very well, I never thought I'd be in this situation.

Given the high cost of transportation these days, Wharry was especially bothered that Roseburg rode a bus two hours for a few minutes of wrestling.

It was almost pointless for them to come down here, he says.

A year ago, Wharry thought he had things going the right direction.

He spurred interest in the program by taking his team to Hawaii for a Christmas break tournament and counted as many as 31 youngsters in the wrestling room.

Thirty-one kids is great, he says. You can build on that.

South started this season with two dozen kids, but the roster has shrunk to the low teens.

And that's if all the guys who are out sick, didn't make weight or didn't make their grades, come back out.

That's tough on Wharry, a highly successful collegiate champion at Southern Oregon University and now as a masters wrestler.

I'm feeling older, a lot older, says Wharry, who built up Sacramento's Florin High before returning to the Rogue Valley. Florin went from single digits to more than 40 participants. For a person that loves wrestling as much as I do, this really hurts. I thought we'd be able to get kids out there.

At Florin, Wharry worked as campus security and as a para-counselor. But neither he nor his assistant coaches are on the South Medford staff. So when a young man is having a tough time at school or home or decides he's had enough and is ready to quit, Wharry's not ever-present to lean on.

There's nothing quite like looking into someone's eyes when they're making momentous decisions.

It would be harder for a kid to quit if he was seeing me every day, Wharry says. And it would be easier for me to recruit if I was on campus.

Wharry has a degree from SOU in physical education and health but lacks a teaching credential.

There are approximately 30 full-time classified positions at South that don't require credentials, but the only openings that have been offered to Wharry are part time.

Ken is definitely a good wrestling coach and an excellent person, South Medford vice principal Paul Cataldo says. But he's not a teacher, and that limits the options. We don't have many classified openings. Logically, a three-hour position is not going to pay the bills.

In a perfect world, the school district could create a spot for somebody it wanted to keep around, but dollars are hard to find.

Even if an in-house job opened for Wharry, he would still face an uphill struggle.

The Panthers have never so much as challenged for a district championship; their best performance was third in 1989.

South Medford's one — and it's a pretty big one — claim to fame is Les Gutches, who won three straight state championships, a pair of NCAA titles at Oregon State, numerous world championships and a spot on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. But Gutches was already a wunderkind in the making when he transferred from Rogue River as a sophomore in 1988.

Pete Lucas, South's coach from 1986 to 1992, departed for Crook County. He was replaced by former Olympian Sergio Gonzalez, who like Wharry ran an off-campus business. After two seasons, Gonzalez stepped aside and Jeff Johnson, who built a respectable program at Myrtle Point, was hired. Johnson, who coached from 1994 to 1997, struggled to bring numbers into the program — even after he was brought on campus from Hedrick Middle School. Johnson resigned to become an assistant coach at Crater.

Wharry's plan to increase participation was simple. Even though he couldn't cull the hallways, he was seen hanging out at freshman and junior varsity football games. As far as he's concerned, it's a no-brainer that football players should gravitate from the gridiron to the wrestling room in November or December.

I think football and wrestling go hand in hand, Wharry says, adding that middleweights to heavyweights should be football players. The conditioning from wrestling far outweighs anything a kid would do on his own in the off-season. What better way is there for linemen to learn balance, agility, speed and tackling?

But few football players have found their way into the wrestling room. Wharry could count no more than three players on last year's team.

The Junior Panther Club is going, but it's going to be several years before it starts producing a harvest.

Once you have tradition like at Phoenix, Eagle Point and Crater, people want to be part of it, Wharry says. Phoenix, Eagle Point and Crater also have strong feeder and kids programs.

Wharry made a tough choice when he returned to the Rogue Valley to start a business in the 1990s and may have to make another one.

During the December Sierra Nevada Tournament in Reno, Nev., Wharry says he was approached about no fewer than five coaching positions, ranging from the college to high school ranks.

But he's uncertain what his next move will be.

I love this area, he says. I love the people in this valley and they've been very good to me.

Reach reporter at 776-4483, or e-mail