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Haga has turned the Comets into winners

Does the talent make the coach, or does the coach make the talent?

At the high school level, it is unquestionably the latter.

Sure, you need some good athletes to be successful, but put a great high school coach at just about any school, and it doesn't take long for that program to start winning conference and state championships.

It happened with Jim Nagel in football at Ashland. It happened with Larry Binney at North Medford in softball. And for the past decade or so, it has been happening with Greg Haga in wrestling at Crater.

Haga's Comets won their fourth state championship in the past six years last weekend in Portland. And this time, the Comets didn't just win the tournament, they owned it.

They jumped out to a huge lead on the opening day when they won 19 of 22 matches ' including 15 by fall ' and sent 10 of their 12 entrants to the quarterfinals.

The rest of the field was left in their exhaust.

How does Haga do it? Why do his teams dominate like they do?

First and foremost, the Gold Beach native and former Southern Oregon University national champion makes sure that everyone on his team feels worthy. He'll coach the third-string 125-pounder with the same passion and compassion as he will the 160-pound state champion.

With that approach, Haga gets his kids to believe in the team concept. They bond and they root for one another.

When 119-pound sophomore Bryson Gutches lost his semifinal match at the tournament Friday night, his eyes filled with tears not because he was being deprived of a second straight state title, but because he felt that he had let the team down.

I don't think we have anyone on our team who wouldn't give up an individual title for a team title, says Haga, whose Comets have won five state championships in all. One of our mottos is one of all and all for one.

Haga is also a taskmaster who works his wrestlers extremely hard for two hours each day.

They run. They drill. They wrestle.

And they sweat like Marines under a desert sun.

And some days, they double their workload by running in the morning.

To be honest, wrestling at Crater is the toughest thing I've ever done, says Clayton Tankersley, the Comets' hard-nosed 145-pounder. I've done a lot of boxing but this is tougher.

Every day in practice, I would look up at the clock and wonder how time could go by so slowly. But you gut it up and keep going, because you know it pays off in the long run.

It certainly paid off for Tankersley. His only experience on the mats prior to last season was a couple weeks at Hanby Middle School. Saturday, he walked off with third place.

As thoroughly as the Comets dominated this state meet ' they whipped runner-up Roseburg by 67 points ' they should be even tougher next year.

Seven of the 12 wrestlers they took to the tournament return, including standout freshman Cody Clark and sophomores Gutches, Chase Maloney and Ron Lee.

Maloney and Lee both advanced to Saturday's finals, along with senior Jeremy McLaughlin.

WHILE CRATER HAS been a wrestling juggernaut since it won its first state title in 1993, Roseburg has made huge strides of its own in the two years that Steve Lander has been its head coach.

Last season, the Indians shocked the wrestling world by bumping aside Crater and Eagle Point to win the Southern Oregon Conference district meet.

This season, they finished second to the Comets at both the district and state meets.

Lander has installed pride, commitment and a strong work ethic into the Indians' program much the way Haga did when he took over the Crater program 15 years ago.

BASKETBALL LOST ONE of its class acts when Grants Pass High girls coach Ken Lathen announced his retirement over the weekend.

Lathen coached for 35 years, including seven as the Grants Pass boys coach and the last three as the Cavers' girls coach.

He won a Class 3A state championship at Dallas in 1987.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail