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PREP NOTEBOOK: At Phoenix, it's all about the climb

PHOENIX — It’s really just a simple rope dangling from the ceiling in the 4,000 square foot Harry Mondale wrestling room at Phoenix High School.

But for second-year head coach Jon Gay and a handful of his current wrestlers, the rope signifies something much more than just a test of strength and agility from the floor to the ceiling.

This year, it’s Mount Everest.

Gay is leading an assault on the historic mountain range located in the Himalayas bordering Nepal and China, 12 feet at a time. The idea is to climb the height of Mount Everest — all 29,029 feet — to its summit by way of the Pirates’ rope.

“One reason why I’m doing this is I just love to compete,” said Gay, who has coached at Phoenix for three years since wrapping up his collegiate career at Southern Oregon University. “I’m always trying to find something to compete in.”

Gay first got the idea through FloWrestling, which did a documentary on University of Northern Iowa head coach Doug Schwab and stumbled upon the former Olympian amid a rope climb bet he had with one of his assistant coaches.

“I figured if that guy can do it, maybe it’s something I can try to take on as well,” said Gay.

So at the start of the wrestling season on Nov. 12, Gay explained his Mount Everest rope climb pursuit to his fellow coaches and wrestlers and offered it up as a challenge to them as well.

“Honestly, I was like, wow, that seems crazy,” Phoenix senior 113-pounder Ezra DeLuca said of the proposal. “It just seems like it’s almost impossible when you think about it, but if you set different times and know what you’re going to do throughout the season and how many times you’re going to climb it, you can kind of figure out how many times it will take to climb it.”

As such, it will take 2,419 climbs to reach the summit.

Gay said he was naively optimistic about reaching that point by the state tournament in February. His hope now is to “reach the summit” by the end of spring.

“I think when I initially did it, I didn’t really think about the variables of weekends and meets and late nights of practice,” said Gay. “I didn’t think I was going to have those issues where I wasn’t going to be able to keep up a regular schedule.”

Gay is about 400 climbs into his assault but is hoping to dig in and get to around 500 by the end of this week. On average he tries to do at least 20 a day, usually getting a few done while his team warms up before practice, then hits it harder once practice is complete.

“I started doing it with him,” said DeLuca, “but after a while it just gets so intense it’s crazy because your hands get so callusy and just the soreness, it’s just a pretty insane challenge.”

“I’m doing so-so,” added the 18-year-old standout, who leads the contingent of Phoenix wrestlers at around 200 climbs. “I’ve been busy with school and just doing that and wrestling. It’s been a little bit of a challenge. I’m not quite there but I think I’m going to do it throughout the rest of this season and spring wrestling so I’ll have a little bit more of a time frame to do it.”

As you can guess, the rope climb is about more than strength and stamina.

“By nature, when some things get hard,” said Gay, “kids try to find an alternate, easier way around it instead of getting through it the harder way, and the way that means more as a person and a competitor. You can’t always take the easy way out, sometimes you’ve got to stick it out.”

“It’s one thing when your coach is explaining things to you and describing work ethic,” he added, “but it’s a lot different when they can see you do it.”

The message hasn’t been lost on DeLuca and company.

“It’s honestly just teaching yourself to stick with something and finish it,” said the returning state qualifier. “A lot of people start something and don’t finish it. Especially like in the new year, a whole bunch of people get gym memberships and then they quit eventually. Being able to do this and finish it teaches someone to be very responsible and also just be mentally tough in what they do.”

Gay said it has helped build some added camaraderie among the Pirates, with wrestlers checking on his progress as well as that of their teammates and assistant coach Cody Lindsey.

“They’re always checking in on me and seeing if I’m doing my rope climbs,” he said. “It’s different between doing it and talking about it. It kind of sets a precedent for doing the work, to keep pushing through and working at it.”

“Climbing ropes is not the same as wrestling practice or the grind of a season,” added Gay, “but it’s a little about getting better every day and getting closer to your goals. Getting 1 percent better every day is our goal, until we are that 1 percent of teams that get to end the season as champions.”

Thus far, the challenge has been daunting.

“By far it’s been harder than I anticipated,” said Gay. “The hardest part is finding the time or continuing to find motivation at the end of the night when you’re tired and doing it. Doing rope climbs consecutive days in a row, your hands start to burn and really get sore. Your hands definitely go out before anything.”

DeLuca definitely agrees, and has been impressed at his coach’s fortitude.

“You think a number like 20, oh that’s not that much,” said DeLuca, who is No. 3 in the Class 4A state rankings at 113, “but when you’re climbing the rope, it’s like really challenging. Especially with getting all the calluses on your hand, it legitimately hurts. It’s not something that you can just do, you have to really work at it and push yourself.”

The Pirates are looking to embody that spirit this season when they’re out on the mat. The team’s Skyline Conference chances took a hit with the loss to injury of senior standout Dalton Samis, but a host of returning state qualifiers like DeLuca and senior Jacky Hawkins have helped lead the way toward what they hope will be a sensational season.

“We try not to be so much result-oriented to figure out if we’re having a good season,” said Gay, “it’s more about the progression and getting better every day. Based on where we were last year at this time, our guys are closing the gap on kids they’ve lost to in the past and getting better to put themselves in a good position as we enter the second half of the season.”

Phoenix opens Skyline action Wednesday at Mazama, where the Pirates will face Henley, North Valley and Klamath Union. The final stage of the process to help determine the conference champion comes at the end of January, when Phoenix takes on the other half of the league.

DeLuca said he’s confident in his team’s ability to rise to the occasion when it matters most come regional and state tournament time, and hopes his team continues to follow the example set in front of them by Gay.

“Our coach is a really great guy and really knows what he’s doing,” said DeLuca. “He’s done so much for the team, and him doing this Mount Everest rope climb is just showing that he cares that much more and he’s willing to go the extra mile.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Jon Gay, Phoenix wrestling coach, climbs a rope during practice on Monday. Gay and some of his wrestlers have been attempting to climb the height of Mount Everest in a rope challenge, going 12 feet at a time. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune