Fontes: Wrestling found more than a gem in Idaho’s Junior crown

Editor’s Note: This column appeared in the August issue of WIN Magazine.

By Al Fontes

My journey in the sport of wrestling began in 1978 and now 40-plus years later, I am still involved in a way I would have never imagined when I first stepped on the mat. Since the early 1990s, I have integrated my passion for wrestling into the journalism spectrum of the sport. Prior to 2020, I promoted the state of California for over 20 years, was the lead state editor for the California Wrestler Newsletter, and now as a resident of Idaho have integrated myself into the wrestling culture of the “Gem State.”

I set about exploring my options to promote wrestling in Idaho, it was obvious from the get-go I had landed on a gold mine, or in other words, found a hidden gem. In a few short words, something special was happening here. One to never waste time guessing, I put my nose to the grindstone and immediately immersed myself into the wrestling culture to gain a greater perspective of the basic constructs of Idaho wrestling and those involved. 

Mack Mauger (top), one of two Junior champs from Idaho, now has five all-time Fargo stop-sign plaques. (Tony Rotundo/ photo)

Fast forward to 2023 and the following is what I have discovered thus far. First, there is an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to build a wrestling culture that not only grows in numbers from the grassroots and above, but to compete on a national level among the elite states.  And these wrestlers and coaches recently made history when they captured Idaho’s first Junior National team championship in Greco-Roman wrestling.

There are many outstanding coaches and volunteers that are part of this process led by Chris Owens, the director of Idaho USA Wrestling. Together, they have executed a blue-print for action to implement this vision. Without going into great detail, they have created environments where the best of the best can come together to train at an elite level throughout the year. 

Additionally, there has been a greater emphasis to expose Idaho wrestlers to more competitions at the national and international levels. 

Since 2020, I have observed several leading indicators that led to this great achievement of winning the Junior Greco-Roman Nationals in Fargo. For instance, from 2010 to 2019, the state of Idaho averaged a total of thirteen Fargo All-Americans (all divisions), but since COVID it has increased its numbers on an upward trajectory, producing a record 24 in 2021, 21 last season, and slightly dipping to 19 in 2023. 

Additionally, Team Idaho has had a very strong presence at the USAW Folkstyle Nationals, winning the overall team title in the last couple of years in addition to placing in the top five a few times at Fargo. Moreover, at the international level, a cadre of Idaho prep stars have made their mark against world competition. They include Derek Matthew, Jadon Skellenger, and Aden Attao. 

A four-time state champion from Declo High School and now freshman at the University of Northern Colorado, Derek Matthews added to his multiple Fargo All-American honors by winning gold at this year’s Pan American Championships in Santiago, Chile. Joining Matthews in Chile, Skellenger is a U15 World Greco-Roman champion and has earned multiple medals in international tournaments, including a recent gold at the Pan Ams. Attao, a force to be reckoned with at Fargo, earned a bronze at last year’s U20 World Greco-Roman Championships and recently brought home his second Pan American gold before competing at Fargo.

Other leading indicators include the exponential growth of girls wrestling in Idaho. Still in its infancy, the numbers in the last few years has gone from less than a hundred girls to now edging upward towards 1,000. It also should be noted that last season there were around 8 or 9 girls ranked in the Top 25 in the national high school rankings. Over and above that, twelve Idaho wrestlers (boys) this past season have committed to compete for a Division I program (32 total in all collegiate divisions), while 90 are now competing collegiately across the nation (includes both men’s and women’s programs).

A lot of great things are happening in Idaho. For a state that has a small population of 1.9 million people, what is being produced here is extraordinary considering the per capita statistic compared to larger states. With that said, the leadership and vision that has been established is working and improving by the day. Keep your eyes on Idaho, it is definitely a hidden gem. 

(Al Fontes, who also serves as a coach at Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian, writes a continuous blog about wrestling in Idaho. 

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