Is college wrestling in trouble?
That's a good question, and one that connects with a current conversation surrounding Pacific University, its wrestling program and others like them that are mired in declining numbers. But at least one man on the Forest Grove campus is convinced the sport is alive and well — and answered the question with an emphatic "no."
"There's a lot of promise and much to look forward to with wrestling here," said Pacific Sports Information Director Danny Kambel.
Pacific, like a number of schools nationwide, struggled last season due to limited numbers of participants. The sport of wrestling has seen a drop in participation over the last few years, prompting the National Federation of State High School Associations to tweak a handful of rules — including allowing a two-piece uniform — in an effort to boost the numbers. But Kambel sees this as a blip rather than a sign of things to come, and is confident Pacific coach Severin Walsh will replenish the pool of talent and revive a rich tradition of Boxer wrestling.
"Coach Walsh has a very promising recruiting class coming in, but you know he and all of our coaches are always trying to find kids that fit our school and programs," said Kambel. "They want these kids to succeed on and off the mat."
Walsh will be beginning his tenth season as head wrestling coach at Pacific later this year and has nurtured a number of successful grapplers during his time in Forest Grove. Last season, Ian Morford at 197 pounds was the Boxers' top competitor with a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Division III West Regional, but Walsh had four all-region wrestlers in 2014-15, including Eric Harder who had been Pacific's first division champion since 2002. In addition, Caleb Malychewski became Pacific's first All-American since 2002 while finishing fifth at the 2013-14 national championships.
"Coach is building the proper relationships to recruit and build the program," said Kambel. "It's about developing the kids that are here and bringing in the right kids to enhance the program."
Athletes interested in collegiate wrestling aren't as easy to come by these days. With diminishing numbers at the high school level, the same schools are dipping into a shallower pool of talent. Pacific has enhanced its program by adding a women's team, one of only 35 schools in the nation to do so. Last season two wrestlers, Katherine Dennis and CarrieAnn Randolph, represented the school at the Women's College Wrestling Association Championships in Oklahoma City. Both were defeated in the consolation bracket of the championship, but their presence was further proof of an up-and-coming Pacific presence on the mat.
"We definitely see our women's program as an asset to athletics and the program as a whole," said Kambel.
Pacific's annual Boxer Open continues to grow, hosting schools from Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho — including Division I schools Oregon State, Boise State and the University of Washington.
"We feel it's one of the top wrestling tournaments in the west," Kambel said.
So while the Boxers may be down, they're certainly not out. And this new crop of talent could make the difference.
"It's about getting the proper fit," said Kambel. "Coach Walsh will figure it out."