On the surface, this is the time of the winter high school sports season when adulation abounds.
District and regional tournaments are starting. Trophies are won. Personal prep legacies are being written.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find triumphs that aren’t at the top of the podium.
You’ll find them in places like the Fort Vancouver High School wrestling room, a former dance studio that sweltered like a sauna on a recent evening.
About 25 Fort wrestlers ground through the grueling final hour of practice. Many have hopes of a top-four finish in the Class 3A District 4 tournament this weekend and a spot in regionals.
Nothing unusual about that, right?
But consider that four years ago, not even 10 Fort wrestlers finished the season.
Consider that last season, Fort won its first duel wrestling meet in eight years. This season, the Fort boys and girls have won six.
Most importantly, consider that when the season began more than half the team was getting at least one F, according to its coach. Now, every athlete is passing each class.
If you’re giving a trophy to an athletic program that has made the most progress this year, it’s hard to beat Fort.
And much of that is due to second-year coach Saleh Batroukh, a stocky 2006 Fort grad whose voice courses with an energy that fills the room.
Batroukh was a volunteer assistant before becoming head coach. Once taking the reins of the program, he has turned the wrestling team into a second family for his athletes.
For some athletes, the team is like a first family. At Fort Vancouver, where 71.2 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in 2014-15, Batroukh has coached many teens who are dealing with serious issues outside of school.
One wrestler abruptly called Batroukh when his mother relapsed on drugs. He worried about losing his wrestling family because his mother’s relapse meant he might have to live with his grandmother in another state.
One freshman wrestler was hospitalized after a suicide attempt earlier this season. She no longer wrestles, but still comes to practices for the support offered by the team.
Senior Naomi Garcia says the wrestling team offers a grounding presence amid her absent home life.
“I can talk to the coaches about my problems,” she said. “I’m just really comfortable with them. My family hasn’t really been there. I started paying for myself when I was seventeen. Without wrestling, I’d probably be at home doing nothing except cleaning and babysitting.”
Batroukh pushes his wrestlers both athletically and academically. Practices are rigorous. Each Wednesday brings a mandatory grade check. His “No F’s” policy means any wrestler who is failing a class spends practice doing homework beside the mats until the grade improves.
And unlike previous years, the wrestlers are sticking with the program.
“You build that relationship with the kids,” Batroukh said. “They know that the coach is here for them no matter what. If somebody did that for me, I’d feel bad if I quit on them.”
Fort Vancouver Athletic Director and Associate Principal Dirk Hansen said the student body is starting to notice the wrestling team’s efforts on the mat and its presence off of it. Each Friday, the wrestlers fan out across the school grounds to pick up litter. It’s their way of respecting their community, rough edges and all.
Hansen says it’s important students from non-affluent families know that success is within their reach.
“We don’t make any excuses,” Hansen said. “We have kids that come from all different cultures and backgrounds. We teach each of them the same lessons of respect and having a strong work ethic.”
Those life lessons have inspired senior Duncan Crawford, a 285-pounder who weighs less now than he did as a sixth-grader.
“It made me realized that whenever I want something, I just have to work for it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Even after I hang up my shoes, I’m going to have the mentality I have when I wrestle.”
Fort freshman Andrew Hengstler hasn’t won a match this season. But he is down to 170 pounds after beginning the season as a 210-pound kid who had never been active.
But whether a wrestler wins or not, Batroukh ensures they receive the support and lessons they’ll need to grapple whatever life throws their way.
“I tell them, ‘Brothers and sisters is what you are,'” he said. “A big mixed family is what you are.”
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @col_mrice.