When Erik Gonzalez first arrived to coach Heritage wrestling in 2015, he was shocked to see the mat room’s walls were blank.
“This was the same Heritage that dominated the early-2000s, right?” he pondered, reminding himself that it was his Port Angeles wrestler who helped seal the Timberwolves’ first state title in 2003.
Gonzalez was not lost. He had arrived, in fact, at the same Heritage High School that dominated the Clark County wrestling scene after the school opened in 1999.
Heritage won eight Clark County Championships in the first decade of its existence. But somewhere along the line, Heritage wrestling lost its way. When Gonzalez moved from Port Angeles, the banners that used to hang were stowed away, the walls painted over.
“All the history had been erased,” Gonzalez said.
His first season, the 2015-16 campaign, he opened with 25 wrestlers, several of which claimed that Heritage wasn’t a “wrestling school.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Gonzalez told them. “This was the premier wrestling school in the region. I remember those days. That’s what we have to get back to.”
The Timberwolves are still a long way from returning to Heritage’s heyday, but entering Friday and Saturday’s Clark County Championships at Skyview, there’s hope. Heritage wrestling has life again.
“Us as captains, we talked about what we wanted to do as team this year and it was definitely one of our goals to place as high as we can at Clark County,” said sophomore Israel Gonzalez, who is the son of Erik. “We want to show that Heritage wrestling is back and it’s not going to be leaving anytime soon.”
Return to relevance
The first thing Erik Gonzalez did to begin the rebuild at Heritage was to return the banners back to the mat room. A history teacher for 19 years, he knows how important the past can be for the future.
Now hang the banners of district titles (there are seven), regional championships (four) and Heritage’s lone state title, which Gonzalez remembers so fondly for his Port Angeles wrestler Julio Garcia and his 15-4 decision win in 2003 that secured Heritage’s 1.5-point state championship win over Spanaway Lake.
Then, Gonzalez reinstituted the club and youth wrestling programs.
“For a long time they were here and they let that go,” Gonzalez said. “That coincided with the start of the decline of the program.”
Senior Alex Newberry, Class 4A’s seventh-ranked 160-pounder, was a longtime follower of the program. He started wrestling when he was 5 years old.
“I saw the downfall of it,” Newberry said. “Coming in, I was a little iffy about it, but seeing Erik Gonzalez and his dream of building up the program really made me excited to go to this school.”
Newberry is one of two ranked Heritage wrestlers. Israel Gonzalez, coming off a sixth-place state finish, is the eighth-ranked 113-pounder.
There are 44 boys and girls in Heritage’s wrestling program now; they started the season with 58, a far cry from five years ago. There are also 90 in the youth programs.
“We just had to re-establish that culture,” coach Gonzalez said. “We still have a long ways to go, but we have some great kids who are eager to learn and are hungry. Now we just have to continue to develop them as wrestlers.
“Wrestling is such an amazing sport, but it’s a grueling and heartbreaking sport. It takes awhile; you don’t see results instantly.”
Growth from within
For four years, the banners that now drape the Heritage wrestling walls were unchanged. They remained stuck in successes past.
Israel Gonzalez broke that trend, adding his sixth-place finish to the “Wrestling Legends” wall at the mat room’s entrance. It was the school’s first medalist since Marcus Hendrickson’s sixth-place trophy in 2015.
Israel Gonzalez embodies exactly what Heritage wrestling wants from its athletes. He demands the most from his teammates, on the mats and in the weight room.
Newberry, an Arizona Christian University commit, does the same. Eddie Davis, Juan Castillo, Andre Cowley, Timmy Carballo and Zephen Zabik were all applauded by their coach.
“Having those mini coaches in the room helps tremendously,” Israel Gonzalez said. “If you’re working with a couple people and another guy is working with a couple people, it just shrinks the room down a little bit.”
While Coach Gonzalez doesn’t set specific goals for individual tournaments, his captains definitely know Clark County Championships is their proving ground.
“If we’re beating Union halfway through Clark County, you better believe we’re going to fight for No. 1 at districts,” Newberry said. “That’s always been our goal.”
Concluded Israel Gonzalez: “Our goal ever since we moved here was we want Heritage to be a perennial school in district and one everyone fears wrestling.”