OTHELLO — One by one they gathered, then in groups, kids, friends and family started collecting on the sidewalk in front of PJ Taggares Gymnasium on Thursday morning. La Familia, oblivious to the chill of the day, gathered to send this generation of wrestlers off to the Tacoma Dome for Mat Classic XXIX.
The energy level built as the crowd increased. Once timid little ones scurried in and out of the people, carried away in the excitement. Signs of support raised high in the air for all to see, sparkled just a bit as the sun tried to break through the early morning fog.
It was good day to wear red and black. It’s part of the culture, part of the tradition, it was the way it’s always been since Elmer Eggebrecht won the first state championship back in 1953. Or back in the day when now longtime Husky coach Rudy Ochoa helped them win back-to-back Class A state championships in 1968-69.
Yep, the same year Carlos Santana was playing Woodstock, Othello was celebrating its third state wrestling championship in school history. Carlos is still playing and the Husky faithful are still sending their gladiators off in style.
“Good luck son, enjoy the experience,” said David Guzman, his son Geo on his shoulders holding a sign of support for D.J., who wrestles at 195 pounds. “It’s something I never had. I just want him to enjoy the moment.”
They took pictures with both the boys and the girls. Othello girls wrestle tough too. They qualified eight and they were there in force with their hair pulled back in their traditional cornrow hairstyles.
“It takes two hours to do my hair,” Husky senior Kaylee Martinez said with a smile. Reese Jones never had such issues, sporting his new do of yellow.
Tucked away in the back, with just a hint of sorrow in his eye, was a young man, left arm in a sling, doing his best to support his teammates. It went without saying that Othello junior Chris Melo wanted to be boarding the bus with his mates. Melo, one of the top 106-pounders in the state, saw his season end at the Dream Duals in Spokane earlier in the year when he suffered a separated shoulder as a result of an illegal body slam. He still has another season, but his heart was clearly with the guys as he watched them load the bus, bound for glory. It was a touch of class, something you do when you’re part of the family.
“The thing about Othello wrestling is that they all support each other through the good and bad times,” said Othello seventh-grader Tristan Eldred. “I think they’re good role models. (Chris Melo) is hurt, but he’s here supporting the team. That’s pretty cool.”
Othello seventh-grader Ethan Medina looked on like the next wave of Husky wrestlers have done for years. His eyes gave way to the excitement of watching as the scene unfolded around him. He could be next in a long line of wrestling excellence and he watched with intent as T.J. Martinez (195), Reese Jones (170), D.J. Guzman (195) and the others made their way to the bus.
“Wrestling is family, we’re like brothers and sisters,” he said. “I want to wrestle for Othello some day. So when I go and see them wrestle, I watch what they’re doing and try to use their moves when I wrestle.”
The Othello boys tradition dates back decades, but the girls team is rapidly developing its own culture. Cynthia Garza grew up in a wrestling family. Her brother Rudy Ochoa II is the boys coach, meaning Rudy senior is pops. What makes this la familia to her is that the kids representing their school and their town are good role models.
“The little kids and even their peers are a part of this tradition,” she said. “Wrestling is huge in our family and it takes hard work to get where these kids are at. That’s why we’re out here for support. They are a part of who we are.”
Like some iconic scene from “Hoosiers,” they loaded up the bus and followed a police escort down 14th Street through the town on their way to the highway with a line of honking cars trailing behind. Where basketball is king in Indiana, wrestling takes center stage in this central Washington farming community and they sent the next generation of wrestlers off to the Tacoma Dome with a certain flare, because that’s what family does.