Darrington wrestlers Lucas Reuswaat (left) and Johnny Franke practice Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Darrington wrestlers Lucas Reuswaat (left) and Johnny Franke practice Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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Darrington is small, but its high school wrestlers are mighty

Now the Loggers’ wrestling program will turn to a decorated alumnus to shepherd in the future.

DARRINGTON — In the decade of the 2010s, Darrington High School (enrollment: 102), in a town with a population of 1,420, produced six individual state champions in boys wrestling, and Loggers reached the Class 2B/1B state finals nine times.

In seven consecutive seasons (2013-2019), at least one Darrington wrestler competed for a state championship, a streak that has a great chance of growing at Mat Classic XXXII next weekend in the Tacoma Dome.

By comparison, the Lake Stevens boys wrestling program, the gold standard for Snohomish County and one of the state’s elite powerhouses, had 11 4A champions and four other finalists during that same span.

It’s fitting to view Darrington’s program alongside the colossus that coach Brent Barnes has built at Lake Stevens (enrollment: 1,917; population: 33,378), because the two teams have been connected for more than 20 years, with the best Logger wrestlers traveling south before and after the high school season to train with Lake Stevens’ club team.

And like their compatriots at Lake Stevens, Darrington wrestlers have benefited from program stability in the past decade. Even though the team has had three head coaches during that span (Chad Monteith, Andy West and current coach Ray Franke), the message is the same, delivered by coaches the team members have known for years, in some cases because they’re related.

Darrington coach Ray Franke instructs Amanda Brown (top) and Laura Langer during practice Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Darrington coach Ray Franke instructs Amanda Brown (top) and Laura Langer during practice Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Darrington’s wrestling success is proof you don’t have to be the biggest to be among the best. Powered by the strong work ethic that is ingrained in their small community, along with the return of their most decorated alumnus to lead the program into the next decade, the Loggers have hopes of joining Lake Stevens as a robust member of the state’s elite.

That continuity on which Darrington wrestling has thrived dates back to the formation of the program in the early 1970s.

Pete Selvig has lived in Darrington for 53 years. He moved to the community to work for the forest service in 1969 after a stint in the U.S. Army. A native of Waterloo, Iowa, the hometown of wrestling legend Dan Gable, Selvig was an assistant to head coach Dan O’Malley for Darrington High School’s first wrestling team.

Bill West was the Loggers’ first state champion, winning the 190-pound weight class in 1973.

“I was making 25 cents an hour to be an assistant,” said Selvig, now 77 and the coach for Darrington’s four female wrestlers. “I’ve always felt that what you put into this sport is what you get out of it, and if you think like a champion, you can be a champion.”

West, who passed away in November of 2015 at the age of 60, became the Loggers’ head coach in 1985, with Selvig as his assistant. Andy West, Bill’s son and the Loggers’ head coach from 2011-2014, won the program’s second state title, capturing the 1A/2B/1B championship at 215 pounds in 1998. He followed that up with the 275-pound title in 1999.

Andy West was the first Darrington wrestler to seek additional instruction and practice partners more commensurate with his abilities. On the advice of Chad Touhy, a childhood friend from Darrington who moved to Lake Stevens and wrestled for Barnes in the mid-1990s, Andy West began driving himself to train with the Lake Stevens club as often as he could.

Andy West said it was a seminal moment that altered the future of Darrington wrestling.

“It changed at that point,” he said. “Everything changed.”

Touhy eventually moved back to Darrington and joined the coaching staff as an assistant. He brought techniques taught by Barnes, such as the spiral ride that is a trademark of Lake Stevens wrestling, to everyone in the Loggers’ wrestling room, not just the few who trained at Barnes’ club.

Armed with a more diverse knowledge base, the Loggers went on to average just over two state placers per season from 2000-2010, earning top-10 finishes in the 2B/1B team standings in 2007 (eighth) and 2008 (ninth).

Darrington was able to accomplish all this without much in the way of a youth program, which typically catches prospective wrestlers early, teaches them the same techniques they will refine in high school, and keeps turnout levels consistent.

These youth programs, along with groups such as what is now called the Lake Stevens Wrestling Club after years as Pin City Wrestling Club, help wrestlers stay engaged with the sport beyond the winter months. They’re often the lifeblood of successful high school programs of any size, similar to feeder teams that keep high school football and basketball teams strong.

When Mason McKenzie, Andy West’s stepson, began showing promise as an 11-year-old, West knew where to take him to further his training.

“Pin City really developed me,” said McKenzie, who went on to win three state championships and reach four 2B/1B finals at 220 pounds from 2013-2016, before following Andy Cook, another of his club coaches and Andy West’s former roommate and wrestling teammate at North Idaho College, to Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen.

When a torn labrum that initially surfaced during McKenzie’s junior year of high school re-tore at Grays Harbor, ending his competitive wrestling career, he turned to coaching, with the aim of creating a program in Darrington that would be in the image of the clubs he learned so much from during his development.

Darrington assistant coach Mason McKenzie (left) works with Nik Requa (right) during practice Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Darrington assistant coach Mason McKenzie (left) works with Nik Requa (right) during practice Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

McKenzie is as an assistant coach under Franke this season, but takes the lead in most of the Loggers’ technique work, and will take over the program as a 23-year-old head coach next season.

“We’re starting to create something here that I had as a kid, but where you don’t have to travel. It’s important to have that here for the kids coming up, and most successful programs have clubs where kids get consistent coaching,” said McKenzie, who founded the Logger Wrestling Club this season for boys and girls ages 5-11.

“I never really had a youth program,” said Darrington senior Johnny Franke, Ray’s son and one of the state’s best 195-pound wrestlers in any classification. “It was hard, but I would go to Lake Stevens trying to get better partners, but I was waking up to go to school and have an hour after school before going to Lake Stevens and (I) wouldn’t get home until 9 p.m. every night. Then I’d wake up the next day and do it again. As an 11-year-old, that’s pretty tough to do. But it makes it better for me at the end of the day. I know I put in the work just to make myself better.”

That work has paid off. Franke, a two-time state placer, is the favorite to win the 2B/1B state championship at 195 pounds at Mat Classic XXXII and will have opportunities to wrestle collegiately. He enters the regionals with a record of 38-2, with his only defeats coming in the two most prestigious tournaments in the region — Tri-State and Gut Check.

He was a finalist at Tri-State, losing 10-5 to Chiawana’s Isaiah Anderson, a returning 4A state champ and the top 195-pounder in the state in Washington Wrestling Report’s All-Classification rankings.

Franke reached the semifinals at Gut Check, and was pinned in the first period by Peyton Craft of New Jersey’s Blair Academy, who is ranked eighth in the nation by FloWrestling.

Senior 160-pounder Lucas Reuwsaat and freshman 106-pounder Aksel Espeland are the Loggers’ other most likely placers at state.

Reuwsaat placed fourth at Tri-State and Espeland took advantage of the 98-pound weight class being offered in Idaho and finished sixth.

“It’s been a good challenge for us,” said Ray Franke, who has led the Loggers since 2015 and also has coached the middle school program for over 30 years. “That’s where our losses have come the past few years, and we’ve learned a lot from taking on the top of the top. We have to have our wrestlers seeing themselves as being that good. Believing you belong there is part of the journey.”

The Loggers’ continued success at these tournaments demonstrates you don’t have to be from a big school in order to be successful, and reinforces that message to the next generation of Darrington wrestlers.

“I’ll go to Lake Stevens to practice and I’ll always get crap from them. ‘Oh, you’re in 2B, there’s no tough kids there,’ and this and that,” Johnny Franke said. “Then I’ll beat up on them and say, ‘You just lost to a 2B kid.’”

Besides, the idea that there aren’t any tough wrestlers in the lower classifications couldn’t be further from the truth.

Darrington wrestlers practice on Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Darrington wrestlers practice on Feb. 6 at Darrington High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Toppenish, a 2A powerhouse that will move down to the 1A level in the next classification cycle, is No. 1 in the Washington Wrestling Report All-Classification team rankings, followed by Granger, a 1A team that will be dropping to 2B/1B after this season.

Those rankings are borne out by competition. Granger was third in the team standings at Tri-State in December, three points behind champion Post Falls (Idaho).

At Gut Check, Toppenish took the team titles in 2017 and 2019, and was second in 2020 behind Blair Academy of New Jersey.

Darrington, Toppenish, Granger and Tonasket (winner of the past three 2B/1B Mat Classic team titles) are all blue-collar communities whose residents are very familiar with hard work, and the wrestlers at the high schools in those communities have embraced the rigorous, even brutal training that molds champions.

“Just about all of my kids are from working-class families that understand the importance of hard work, dedication, and everything else that it takes to be successful in life,” said Tonasket wrestling coach Cole Denison, who is in his third season leading the Tigers after replacing his high school coach, Hall-of-Famer Dave Mitchell. “ I do have quite a few wrestlers that live below the poverty line and need to help with contributing to the family whether that’s working, helping at home, or watching siblings. This sometimes takes priority over everything else. We need to be flexible, understanding and supportive of this.”

The median household income of Darrington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is $42,422, just over half of that of Lake Stevens ($82,500) and more in line with that of Toppenish ($41,852) Granger ($47,232) and almost double that of Tonasket ($22,578).

“Having to overcome adversity is the main thing that I always think of,” McKenzie said. “We’ve had kids from broken families who are having a tough time. They find wrestling and you learn how to overcome. Some of my best friends, if it weren’t for wrestling, they probably wouldn’t have went too much farther.”

“When (I was) a kid, you can wrestle or you can pack out cedar shake blocks all day,” Andy West said, referencing the lumber industry that was synonymous with Darrington for much of its history. “I always had a soft spot for the bad kids, the kids from the dark side of town and from broken homes. I felt like I could help them accomplish something in life. On average, those kids are mentally tough already, and wrestling’s all about being mentally tough. Teaching them the wrestling part is just a bonus.”

McKenzie’s vision for the future of the Darrington wrestling program centers on cultivating talent at the youth level and keeping young wrestlers engaged before they reach high school.

Darrington has 11 active wrestlers (seven boys, four girls) in its high school program, but McKenzie is encouraged by the 15 participants in middle school wrestling and the 15-20 young wrestlers who show up on a given night to train with the Logger Wrestling Club, with instruction from the high school program’s stars.

“Getting more numbers out is a big thing for us,” said McKenzie, who is pursuing his teaching certificate through Western Governors University’s online program and intends to teach in Darrington. “We’ve just never had the numbers, but an upside to that is I really get to know the kids and can work with them pretty much individually all year.”

Anyone questioning whether McKenzie is too young to lead a room of high school wrestlers needs only consult his references.

“Mason lives for wrestling. It’s all he does,” Reuwsaat said. “He’s always looking up stuff to help us get better as individuals. He’ll be just fine. He’s like one of us but at the same time he’s mature enough to take on that role. I think he’ll be ready for it.”

“I think it’s only going to get better,” Ray Franke said of the Loggers’ program. “He has a real good connection to the kids, and I think it’s going to be on an upward swing even from what it has been.”

“He’s got one of the best wrestling minds I’ve been around,” said Andy West. “I spent a lot of time with Andy (Cook), and he processes the sport like him. He knows what to do and he knows how to prepare.”

The architect of 11 team state championships at Lake Stevens is certainly a fan.

“Mason has always been mature beyond his years. He’s smart and a hard worker, but beyond that he has an understanding of what it means to lead people,” Barnes said. “(Darrington) has a gem in Mason.”

While McKenzie was being interviewed at a recent middle school practice in Darrington, his half-brother and Andy West’s youngest son, 12-year-old Kade West, led his teammates through their warmups.

Kade is the biggest kid in the room, just as Mason and Andy were.

“He reminds me a lot of myself when I was his age,” McKenzie said of Kade. “He’s our next big up-and-comer. He and the rest of these kids are hopefully going to be coming up and already have our system going. It’s going to be great.”

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