July 27, 2005 - Clif Extract sits alone in the wrestling room of Sunnyside High School, back to the wall, holding in place the mat that protects the school's warriors. The thermostat above his head in the empty South Tucson wrestling cathedral holds steady at a balmy 99 degrees.
One glance around this humid room, with its low ceiling, and you get the feeling that if the Ironwood Ridge High School assistant coach were to vacate his post as support beam, the countless trophies, banners and pictures of past Sunnyside champions could hold the pads in place all on its own.
Shortly after repairing the sagging wall, with the assistance of Sunnyside head coach Bobby DeBerry, the gladiators enter the arena. Each one looks meaner and more determined than the next.
For 20 of these wrestlers, three months of training culminates in this weekend, starting July 23 in Fargo, N.D., at the Asics/Vaughan Junior and Cadet National Championships.
Considered the world's largest wrestling tournament by TheMat.com, the week-long tourney will feature 4,500 wrestlers from 49 states, spread over 20 mats in the FargoDome on the campus of North Dakota State. The event will be separated into two styles: Greco-Roman July 23 through 26 and men's Freestyle July 27 through 30. The Cadet division is open to wrestlers ages 14 and 15 and the Junior National division is composed of the best wrestlers ages 16 through 18.
Representing the Northwest and Foothills in the cramped gym are seven of the area's toughest mat men including Extract's son Steve (135-pound weight class), Matt Peters (98) and Mike Short (189) from Ironwood Ridge; Chris (145) and Larry Esparza (152) of Marana High School; and Bill Morris (135) and Chad Short (215) from Catalina Foothills High School.
"This is every coach's dream; these are the responsible kids," said Marana High School head coach Rob Lindsay, here to check out two of his prized wrestlers, the Esparza twins, who will be seniors at Marana when school starts in early August.
The Northwest and Foothills kids are among 25 who have trained at Sunnyside every night since the high school state tournament concluded in February. Under the tutelage of the area's finest coaches, including DeBerry and Pat Weber of Flowing Wells, wrestling has taken these boys to places such as Idaho and Nevada to compete against the best the West has to offer.
The roster of athletes reads like a who's who of Tucson high school wrestling, with names like Jerry Ochoa, Nathan Vorel and Kyle DeBerry of Sunnyside and Aaron Briggs of Flowing Wells.
Wrestlers including Extract, Peters and Short qualified for the national tournament with their performance at the West Regional Championships in Winnemucca, Nev., June 20 through 25.
Winning on the national level in Fargo, however, comes at a price.
"Once you place or once you beat a few key names around the country during the school year or during the freestyle year," said DeBerry, "the targets and cameras start coming your way."
Saying DeBerry has been down this road before would be an understatement. This year will mark his 10th straight time heading to nationals. In a decade, DeBerry has witnessed, and has played a major role in, the development in Arizona wrestling on the national landscape.
"I remember once upon a time when it was me and three (wrestlers), me and two," said the former Canyon Del Oro High School head coach, who added that the team didn't even have uniforms back then. "To see how it is now, that speaks well for the state."
Since then, DeBerry has had eight national champs, the most recent coming last year by Rene Torres of Sunnyside, and 46 wrestlers place in the top three. Couple that with the success of his high school teams, and wrestling during the middle of summer in the humid gym starts to feel a bit cooler.
Since leaving CDO for Sunnyside after the spring of 1996, DeBerry has more than maintained the prosperity of the south Tucson school's wrestling program. In the past 26 years, Sunnyside has won 23 state titles. So many, in fact, it's easier to name the years the Blue Devils didn't win Class 4A or 5A championships - 1980, 1985 and 1995 - rather than the years they won. Every past state champion from the school - all 105 of them - is immortalized on the wall in the Sunnyside gym.
The atmosphere is ideal for training for a national tournament.
"The conditions in there are much harder than the conditions out when you're wrestling," Steve Extract said. "So, if you can go six minutes in a room where it's 100 degrees, you'll easily be able to do six minutes out on the mat."
For two-plus hours everyday, the gym is full not only of some of the best Southern Arizona wrestlers but also of its most boisterous student leaders.
"Billy Morris, from Foothills, and (Chad) Shorty," said DeBerry. "Those guys weren't sure what to expect. But now, all of a sudden they're like 'Hey, I can assume a leadership role, I know something that this person, who's really good, doesn't, and I'm going to show him and teach it.
"They teach each other, and the interaction on a cognitive level is what the kids get the most out of it."
Combine a hardcore workout with the extreme heat, and wrestlers are losing an average of three to five pounds a night through sweat alone. On a really tough night, it's not unreasonable that a kid will shed upward of eight or nine pounds.
Before practice, Peters entered the Sunnyside gym tipping the scales at 105 pounds. By the time he left the south Tucson high school and stepped into the monsoon-induced lightning storm in the parking lot two and a half hours later, he was four pounds lighter.
It's nothing lots of water and an enormous dinner can't fix, however.
"At state, when I went on, I weighed 130. I weighed 140 that night when I got back to the hotel room," said Larry Esparza, who says the most he's ever lost is around nine pounds in one night. "You can get 10 pounds in an hour, water weight alone."
All the wrestlers sweating it out at Sunnyside this summer are part of the gradual transformation of Arizona wrestling, which has lifted the sport from its blue collar roots and transplanted it to a place among such elite club sports as golf, tennis, swimming and gymnastics - sports that take some money to compete in, DeBerry said.
Unlike some Phoenix wrestling clubs that cost their athletes upward of $900 for a six or seven-month session, DeBerry said he has never taken a single dime from a kid wanting to wrestle for him.
"I just can't see doing that," the coach said about charging his club wrestlers. "The kids come find me; I don't look for them. If they want to wrestle, the door is open. Come on in."
The Grand Canyon State may be a long way away from equaling wrestling juggernauts Pennsylvania, Iowa or even Utah, but DeBerry would like to see the sport return to the University of Arizona. The UA program was abandoned in the early '80s, going extinct with other now archaic collegiate sports including men's gymnastics, archery and riflery.
With the Arizona high school state tournament perhaps not getting the attention it deserves, if kids want a chance to land a wrestling scholarship at a major university, competing in the national tournaments is a must.
All dreams of putting on a college singlet, however, first must go through the high school gyms. In Arizona, there is no better place to do so than within the hallowed walls of Sunnyside's gym.
"I have five-year-olds that say 'Hey, when I'm in high school, I'm going to do this and my picture is going to be right there," said DeBerry, pointing to the wall. "How can you tell that kid no?"
Perhaps by then the wall will be able to hold itself up.