NORTH BEND — Returning to an alma mater is often something athletes think about, the idea that they would come back and coach at the school where they endeavored, hoping to return and nourish the gift given them.
Wednesday evening, three local wrestling coaches in one building were all in the middle of doing that. Travis Wittlake at Myrtle Point, Chance Liles at Coquille and Garrett Caldwell of North Bend have all returned to their alma maters, hoping to rebuild their respective programs from recent struggles.
Wittlake has the most high school coaching experience of the three, having led Marshfield through a period of success as the Pirates attracted local talent around four-time state champ Travis "Junior" Wittlake and strong performances at nearly every state tournament the Pirates entered.
Wittlake departed Marshfield after the graduation of his son last winter, and expected to have at least a year off of coaching high schoolers, before once again possibly coaching his younger son, who is currently in the mat club.
But a sudden opening at Myrtle Point let him back in, getting him to the place he always wanted to be anyway.
“Myrtle Point was the school I always wanted to be head coach at when I was young,” Wittlake said. “My opportunity came at Marshfield. I love those guys. That’s like a home to me now. Anyways, going back to Myrtle Point is pretty special. I’m in the same room I wrestled in when I was little. In the same room Junior wrestled it ‘til he was 8 years old.”
Caldwell wanted to be a teacher and a coach, but didn’t necessarily think he would return to North Bend.
A year ago was his first coaching at his alma mater, and it was an opportunity that he relished then, and now.
“It’s awesome,” Caldwell said. “It’s what I always envisioned. I went to school to be a teacher. I always knew I wanted to be a coach.”
Liles, after spending a significant amount of time coaching the Coquille Mat Club, filled Coquille’s head spot a year ago.
Now in his second season, Liles is trying to build the Coquille program from low numbers and little recent success.
Though North Bend topped Coquille 54-12 Wednesday with the help of seven forfeits, Sage Garrington (145 pounds) and Braydon Clayburn (170) both came up with pins against the Bulldogs. Ethan Ingram (120) had a pin for North Bend.
“It’s been okay,” the admittedly soft-spoken Liles said. “It’s been a little tough, we’ve had a little injuries and stuff. But for the most part, the kids are doing pretty good. (We) have a couple of tough kids who are sticking with it.”
Those couple of “tough kids” include Garrington, a senior, and Clayburn, a sophomore, who have been the two most steady performers, both in the wrestling room and outside.
“Those two like to push it and really work hard,” Liles said.
But, ultimately the challenge for the three coaches is to bolster the numbers.
Coquille only had three wrestlers at Wednesday’s dual, and all three wrestled an exhibition in addition to their scheduled bouts against the host Bulldogs.
Also, like the other two programs, it’s a circular arrangement with the respective mat clubs. The high school program, with its successes or otherwise, influences the amount of interest in the mat club. Young kids look up to those older than them, and a successful program in any sport draws youngsters to it.
Liles’ experience at the mat club itself gives him contacts there, but you still have to keep wrestlers in the program instead of seeking athletic opportunities in other sports.
“I just try to get the kids in there and try to keep ‘em there,” Liles said. “That’s the hardest part. It’s not an easy sport. It’s about as tough as it comes. So the kids I got there I want to keep there. It’s not easy. It’s hard.”
The best way to do it is show some success in the program,” Wittlake said. “To gain some interest and change the mentality of what’s going on in the hallway. Kids want to be a part of something successful. I think that’s the first step.”
Wittlake is in a similar position at Myrtle Point, fielding a roster of just seven Wednesday in a 42-24 loss to North Bend.
But Wittlake is in a bit of a different position as it relates to the mat club.
Myrtle Point’s youth program is healthy, with a fresh new influx of wrestlers in conjunction with a program that was already healthy.
It’s an especially fun experience for Wittlake, who is now coaching the children of, and coaching with his former Myrtle Point classmates.
Both Wittlake’s assistants were on his high school wrestling team at Myrtle Point, giving them a common foundation from which to work.
“We all are likeminded,” Wittlake said. “It’s all working out great. Just trying to change the mentality of things.”
Tyler Huerta (126 pounds), Clifford Johnson (132), PD Matthews (138) and Isaac O'Connor (152) all had pins for the Bobcats against the Bulldogs, while Romig Beley (160) and Cutter Woodworth (195) both had pins for the Bulldogs.