BATTLE GROUND — Organizers of the inaugural Southwest Washington Championships hope the wrestling tournament is the first of many.
The Washington State Wrestling Association-sanctioned tournament was held Saturday at Battle Ground High School with wrestlers from around Washington, Oregon and Idaho competing in freestyle and Greco-style formats, from divisions 8 and under all the way up to high school and USA Junior ranks.
It was a callback to tournaments put on years ago at Battle Ground by Merle Crockett, the founder of Southwest Washington Wrestling Club, who gave Battle Ground head coach Karl Johnson his blessing to host Saturday’s event.
“It means a lot to the wrestling community because it’s at home,” Crockett said at the event Saturday. “And, we filled the room up, and that’s huge. To the wrestling community, it’s what we do.
“But to a lot of these people, it’s a bonus for us, because they pay their five bucks to get in here, and that supports buying a mat and extending our wrestling community. It’s all good.”
Johnson was a longtime wrestling and football coach at La Center, as well as teacher in Battle Ground Public Schools. Two years ago, he took over a Battle Ground wrestling program in need of stability following several coaching changes.
“The last time we had a tournament here was my freshman year and we went through a lot of coaching changes during that time,” said Gunnar Henderson, a Battle Ground senior who won both the freestyle and Greco 160-pound USA Junior brackets Saturday. “My junior year, we finally found some stable coaches.”
To build the program, Johnson realized there needed to be a kids club presence, although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed those plans.
He subsequently reached out to Crockett, whose club has a training compound in Amboy, and began opening up the wrestling room at Battle Ground twice a week to the club at the end of February, after the most recent winter season ended.
“It exploded,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden people are excited. It’s like this awakening.”
Johnson put in a bid with the WSWA for a tournament, and the state governing body granted it in March. Due to a number of cancellations, the Southwest Washington Championships turned out to be the only USA Wrestling tournament running in Washington and Oregon this weekend.
While this year was the first tournament of its kind, Johnson plans to put on another event in October and make the Southwest Washington Championships an annual tournament with a set date.
“Doing these tournaments really leave a lot on the table for programs like Battle Ground to get better,” Henderson said. “Because when we’re starting to get kids at a younger age and all year round, it brings a lot more light to the sport.”
But this isn’t just a story about Battle Ground’s wrestling program. Johnson sees it as part of a revival of Southwest Washington wrestling at large after two difficult years of adjusting to the pandemic and the restrictions placed on the sport.
“The machine of wrestling has been almost stopped because of the (pandemic) rules that we had,” Johnson said. “… but now it’s started, and there’s an excitement.”