By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes
Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, Cameron Parks started wrestling in kindergarten.
“I never really liked basketball, wanted to do something more physical,” Parks said.
But after budget cuts took the sport out of Salem-Keizer middle schools, Parks wasn’t sure what would be available to him once he reached the sixth grade. Thankfully for Parks and 60 other kids at Whiteaker and Claggett Creek, wrestling returned to the middle schools last year and Parks took advantage of the opportunity, even qualifying for the middle school state tournament.
In its second season back, after a five-year hiatus, Parks is one of 50 kids at Whiteaker that came out for wrestling in January. Coach Kelly Hafer said that is 20 more than last year and includes six girls, like sixth grader Destiny Rodriguez, who began wrestling when she was just five, has won multiple state championships and the Reno World Championships last April.
Rodriguez picked up more hardware on Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Oregon Classic in Redmond. Competing in the girls division for All-Phase Wrestling Club, she won her weight class.
Rodriguez looks forward to wrestling for her school. Her goal is not to lose a match.
“It’s pretty cool because I’ve gone to Virginia and done different dual meets but it’s different because I’m doing it for a school,” Rodriguez said.
Led by eighth grader Grady Burrows, Claggett Creek has about 30 kids in its wrestling program.
Aaron Carr, who coached at Claggett for three years before the team went away, is glad to have wrestling back.
“We had an after school program but it wasn’t really the same,” Carr said. “They did one tournament a year so the kids didn’t really get to experience wrestling matches. It’s good to have it back. I think it’s going to be great for the high schools. It’s getting more kids interested in it. We’re having issues trying to rebuild the program. It’s going to take a few years to get it back to where it used to be.”
McNary also has the Celtic Mat Club but Carr said that’s for more hardcore wrestlers like Burrows, Rodriguez and Parks, not kids just wanting to give the sport a try.
“Getting new kids interested in it, that’s going to be the hard challenge,” Carr said. “I think it’s really good for kids to have options because not everyone is going to be 6-foot-3 and play basketball.”
Claggett and Whiteaker both have 10 duals, the final one against each other on Thursday, Feb 23 at McNary High School.
Celtics head coach Jason Ebbs believes middle school wrestling will only strengthen his high school program, which used to have as many as 90 kids but started with only 54 this season.
“Why anyone would ever take away an opportunity like wrestling from kids, I haven’t the slightest clue,” Ebbs said. “Wrestling is a no cut sport. All we do is serve kids. We have all kinds of kids come in here. I’ve got kids with great grades. I’ve got kids who are riding the fence. I’ve got kids who need wrestling as bad as wrestling needs them. It’s a unique environment that serves the needs of all of those kids. We’re still trying to find the upswing. We’re in the process of trying to reintroduce wrestling to the city of Keizer.”