March 8, 2006 - Lining the walls of Mike Tinghitella's seventh grade math classroom at Tortolita Middle School are the pre-pubescent faces of the wrestling champions that once walked its hallways.

The stares from the Wall-of-Famers offer a temporary distraction from equations and fractions for a handful of Tinghitella's students, tantalizing them with dreams of one day earning a state title of their own.

A similar daydream is occurring in middle school classrooms throughout the Northwest as wrestling quickly gains popularity in what's becoming a hotbed for the sport.

With participation up across the region from Oro Valley to Marana, wrestling is as strong as ever in the Northwest where these miniature mat men are no longer relegated to the proverbial "B" team when it comes to the northerly neighbors in Phoenix.

"If you look back seven years ago, we couldn't even hold a candle to the Phoenix schools," said Tinghitella. "As a result of everybody striving to get better and building each other up, it's definitely on the upswing."

Under Tinghitella's command, Tortolita has become a wrestling powerhouse, supplying a wealth of talented wrestlers to the high school ranks. The Cougars finished the season undefeated, 17-0, taking both the state and city tournaments along the way. The state championship for the Cougars is the first title won by a Tucson school since 1993.

And while Tortolita remains the gold standard of middle-school wrestling programs in the Northwest, other area middle schools such as Marana, Coronado, Cross and Wilson have lessened the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Creating solid middle-school programs that act as feeder schools for high school programs is no longer a trend for those flush with money, resources and time. It's now the best way to develop consistency in a program, almost like a minor leagues for wrestlers.

But building fighting machines for the high school's gain isn't the sole reason why the sport is on the rise in the Northwest. Middle school coaches don't benefit if a high school wins a state tournament.

"What I love is getting kids when they are little in sixth grade and seeing them grow so fast," said Cross Middle School coach Chris Gutierrez.

This year, Cross benefited from a turnout of 75 kids when the season began in January. Numbers like that put Cross on the same level with the deep rosters of Tortolita. Most other schools fall somewhere between 25 and 45 wrestlers, some of whom never finish the season.

Although it may be considered a minor sport by the nation as a whole, wrestling is the No. 1 choice of student athletes at three of the five Northwest schools. Only Marana and Wilson have sports programs with higher turnouts than the wrestling teams.

Deeper rosters are both a coach's dream and nightmare. More kids means coaches aren't losing points by having too few wrestlers to fill each weight class. With only 16 weight classes, however, more kids also means less chance for them to wrestle on a consistent basis. To combat this dilemma, Tinghitella uses a three-squad system, or an A, B and C team, and sends different squads to face different schools. Most schools, if they are fortunate enough, have an A and B squad.

Further proof of Tucson's rise throughout the state was found at this year's state meet held at Ironwood Ridge High School in February. After three weeks of practices and meets, six of the top eight teams to place in the 40-team state tourney hailed from Tucson, including Tortolita in first place, followed by Wilson School in second.

The rift between Tucson and Phoenix schools is further complicated by the scheduling of the seasons. While Phoenix schools are wrapping up their season, Tucson schools are just hitting their stride. Phoenix uses the trimester system and begins its wrestling season in November, as opposed to Tucson, which operates on a quarterly calendar.

Phoenix holds a state tournament of its own, but it is open to middle school and club teams, and players who don't have to meet eligibility standards. That has driven many Phoenix schools south to compete in the Tucson state tournament.

Coronado coach Rick Clark saw the need for a state tournament to run under the guidelines of the middle school rules. In 2005, Clark organized Tucson's version and the tourney was an instant success.

"Phoenix thinks it's the center of the sports world, and I'm tired of it," said Clark.

In its second year, the tournament attracted more than 40 teams from Nogales to Page. The tourney also served as the perfect place for Wilson to finally flex its muscles.

Because successful sports programs have been few and far between, Wilson has long been regarded as the doormat of Northwest middle schools, especially when competing against its sister school, Coronado. That has drastically changed. Four Wilson wrestlers - Scott Filbert, Luke McClure, Kyle Webb and Trevor Wilson - all took state titles. Both Wilson and Coronado feed into Ironwood Ridge High School.

This year Wilson is loaded with a talented crop of eighth graders, while Coronado has benefited from a solid core of seventh graders.

"This year we're feeding them some good wrestlers, next year Rick (Clark) will feed them some good wrestlers," said Wilson coach Thomas Edwards. "If things keep going the way we're hoping and if we're able to get support from the administration up at the high school, Ironwood Ridge will be a powerhouse at the high school level."

In an era where youth sports such as baseball, soccer and softball are becoming specialized - kids picking one sport and honing their skills year-round - wrestling is no different. In fact, the programs with the highest success rate are often those that train throughout the year in different styles such as freestyle and Greco Roman. The middle school season uses folk-style wrestling, which is a form of freestyle.

Marana High School head coach Rob Lindsay is doing his part to revitalize the Tiger wrestling program from the ground up. Lindsay and a handful of his high school wrestlers will hit up all the elementary schools in the district, putting on a wrestling demonstration at school assemblies. The event is always a hit, said Lindsay, adding that he never has enough flyers to go around because so many kids want one after the presentation.

Less than half of those kids will actually come out for the team, said the Marana coach, but at least the option is available.

In time, Lindsay's legwork will pay off for Marana Middle School.

"It's a numbers game just like anything," said Marana Middle School coach Raul Samorano. "You've got to have a lot of kids that are really interested. We're just trying to get kids with more of a passion for the sport and we don't have that yet."

Generating passion for a sport such as wrestling is often difficult, considering it's not like basketball where a kid can go off and practice on his own.

Clark's son Nash, who was a star wrestler at Ironwood Ridge, had the benefit of growing up around the sport. The younger Clark spent his childhood wrestling in a make-shift gym in his backyard with the Gallick brothers, Nick and Nate, who made a name for themselves as state champions at Sunnyside High School and Iowa State University.

A major concern in the wrestling world on any level is the attention athletes must pay to their weight. Because being a teenager is tough enough on the body, wrestlers are allowed to gain one pound a month as the season progresses.

Coaches are well aware of the dangers of "sucking weight" to be able to fit into specific weight classes and promote maintaining that weight through healthy natural remedies.

"In my day, we wore plastic suits and didn't eat for days," said Cross coach Denny Williams. "Today, it's a different mentality; you don't have to drop a lot of weight to be competitive."

It's the coach's responsibility to teach these kids more than just their moves on the mat. Discipline and self-control are among the qualities coaches will tell you matter the most when it comes to guiding young lives. The job of a coach is to also teach their kids a little bit about personal hygiene. Mats and equipment are routinely cleaned and kids are commanded to shower when they get home. This year, only one kid from Cross came down with a case of ringworm from being exposed to the mats.

Battling opponents and infectious worms tends to bring teams together.

After winning an individual heavy-weight state title in February, Cliff Engelhart made sure to thank his Mountain View High School teammates, the guys who have been wrestling together since the seventh grade, the very same guys who adorn Tinghitella's wall of fame. The coach sees that same bond in this year's class, which is probably one of the best teams he's had in his seven years at Tortolita, he said. Perhaps there's room on the wall for them as well.

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