Smith key to Wildcat wrestling success

February 07, 2001|By ERIC GALVAN, Sports Writer

BRAWLEY — It is one of the, if not the, most successful programs in high school sports in the Imperial Valley.

It is the Brawley Union High wrestling program.

For the past seven years the Wildcats have stood atop the Desert Valley and Imperial Valley leagues.

Ask anyone involved with the program the exact source of the success and they will point to one man … coach Keith Smith.

"This program is where it is because of coach Smith," said Rodney Miller, who wrestled for Smith from 1994-98 and is serving as an assistant coach. "Without coach Smith I really don't think this program would be where it is today."

For more than a quarter century Smith has coached the Wildcats and has had more than his share of league titles, but his current string is the most impressive. When Brawley wrapped up its seventh straight league title with a 67-6 demolishing of Southwest High on Jan. 31, it marked the first time in the school's history the wrestling program had won seven consecutive championships.


It has reached the point where league titles are almost second nature.

Ask his current and former wrestlers and they all attribute the program's success to Smith, but Smith doesn't see it that way.

Where he does think it all starts is with Brawley's junior wrestling program, the Brawley Gladiators. The Gladiator program is a training ground for future Wildcat wrestlers who make their way to high school and work their way up the ranks of Smith's program.

As many have found out, Smith's practices are work. They can be fun, but when it isn't fun, it's what Smith and his wrestlers call "H of H" or "hours of hell."

The hours of hell vary, though. Some days it's only one hour of hell but other days it can be two grueling hours of hell in a small, stuffy 90-95-degree wrestling room.

All agree the price paid in the wrestling room or running miles on Brawley's streets is worth it.

"There's no doubt that we work harder than everyone else," said 17-year-old junior Andy Buckner, whose brother Nathan also wrestled for Smith. "I've been coming to these practices for five years and nothing has changed. Guys work as hard now as they did when I first started coming here."

While the work ethic hasn't changed, the number of wrestlers has. In years past the Wildcats had to recruit wrestlers, particularly on the freshman level. Now there are times when there almost too many people wanting to wrestle.

Smith and freshman and junior varsity coaches Victor Martinez and Omar Dueñas said on average there are anywhere from 80 and 85 grapplers packing the wrestling room. Dueñas said the number peaked at 105 earlier in the season.

The power of numbers is what Central Union coach Stan Gienger said makes the difference for Brawley.

"Right now we have to go out and recruit and have tryouts to get guys to wrestle, but Brawley doesn't have to," said Gienger, who has 17 years experience as a wrestling coach. "They're just so deep it makes it difficult to compete against them. And I think their depth and experience is what has built them into a dynasty."

Said Martinez: "Success breeds success. All these guys see that we're winning and they want to be a part of it. That's how we're able to get so many wrestlers out here."

Brawley's strength in numbers has helped build it into a regional power, a power that has not only dominated the Imperial Valley but also is starting to dominate the San Diego CIF Section, into which Imperial Valley schools entered this year after a long tenure in the Southern Section.

The Wildcats will have their shot to prove they're the best in the San Diego CIF Section Division III in their back yard as this year's CIF tournament will be at Southwest High School in El Centro.

The Brawley wrestlers welcome the challenge with a bit of a swagger to their collective steps.

"This year we have to win it. I think this is the year we finally break through," said 125-pounder Jose Reyes, a state meet qualifier last year. "It's a little bit of cockiness, but a little confidence, too. I guarantee we'll be CIF champions."

Added Smith: "This team we have now is pretty good and it compares to some of the ones we've had in years past. I really don't think these guys have even realized just how good they can be.

"As far as saying this is a dynasty, I wouldn't say that," Smith said. "I'd just say that we're pretty good."

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