One of the truly unique wrestling tournaments in the Pacific Northwest took place at Culver High School Tuesday night.
The Highway 97 Classic — where every age, every match and every point counts. It’s a unique dual-style tournament between two of the best wrestling programs in Central Oregon: the Culver Bulldogs and the La Pine Hawks.
“We have kids here from four or five years of age to 18-year-old seniors,” said Culver head wrestling coach J.D. Alley. “Every match, whether it’s a girls match, a JV match, middle school match, club match, some kids will wrestle multiple times so we can get everybody a match at those younger levels. They all count toward the end and, at the end, the dual meet scores 230 points to 220 points. And we see who wins.”
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It was started eight years ago by La Pine head wrestling coach Aaron flack, who brought over the idea from coaching in Oakridge.
“There was a lot of people that came to those and never really saw wrestling matches before and they say, ‘Man, that was awesome.’ And so, to incorporate all of our kids in there all wrestling side-by-side on different mats, I think it’s a huge plus for the sport of wrestling,” said Flack.
The host of the meet switches from school to school every year.
“A lot of times, a high school kid has a middle school kid and a club kid, and he’s responsible for that second grader until his mom picks him up or whatever,” said Alley. “They kind of forge some pretty cool relationships out of that, and it’s a good thing for our program.”
Some wrestlers have been a part of the Highway 97 Classic since the early days.
“I mean, it’s crazy because I look back at that photo, and I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, I used to be them little guys that are out here competing right now’ and it just like I know it makes me happy because this is the way I evolved into the wrestler I am today,” said Culver senior Derek Torres.
“Getting there, taking that picture, being a part of the high school team, even though they were high schoolers and we were middle schoolers, it just felt like one huge team,” said Culver senior Debren Sanabria. “You know, that’s amazing. Part of our wrestling for Culver all one big family no matter what, building your wrestling for high school, middle school, elementary school, mat club. You know, we treat everybody as family.”
For some, the high school wrestling journey is closing. But for the next generation, it’s just getting started.
“Becoming a junior and senior, leading in warm ups and stuff. It’s good to see that there are still kids coming up and wanting to be a part of it and be an effort in the school,” said La Pine junior Cache Montgomery.
“It’s fun to practice with them because they can teach us more stuff,” said one young La Pine wrestler.
“It’s fun because you get to meet new people,” said a Culver Mat Club kid.
“I like it because it’s starting to really get me, and I think I’m going to learn a lot from this,” said another young La Pine wrestler.
This was a tournament with an entertainment level strong enough to get your popcorn ready, but also a match that both coaches know has a large impact on each program’s success.
“To be able to wrestle side-by-side with them is a dream come true for a lot of those little guys,” said Flack. “So it is a is pretty special and it’s pretty unique. I don’t I think we’re probably about the only ones in the state of Oregon that does it.”
It starts with the youth programs and ends with both programs usually holding high school state championship trophies.
“It shows those younger kids what it’s like to kind of get to wrestle in a high school match or, you know, have a match count and be part of the show, and they don’t understand that and get to hear many that ride the bus to an event,” said Alley. “I mean, every other year, I think if we could pick, we’d just go to La Pine every year because it’s a big deal to ride that yellow school bus to La Pine.”
“We tell these kids — the mat club kids and the middle school kids — that, you know, your points count to the overall score and so just that part of it is, you know, feeling that they’re pretty special at that young of age and just starting out and that they’re out there wrestling for their entire team and their entire community,” said Flack. “So that’s pretty cool.”
La Pine has won the 3A state wrestling tournament three of the last four years. The Bulldogs have claimed gold at the 2A classification 14 out of the last 16 years. And while both programs hope to continue dominance, it starts at tournaments like this with the kids leading the charge.
The final score of Tuesday’s Highway 97 Classic ended in a 239-239 tie.
Alley and Flack decided to play rock, paper, scissors to determine the winning team.
The Bulldogs won the tie-breaker and the tournament.
It was a first in Highway 97 Classic history.