Heber City is used to seeing it's wrestlers do great things.
The best wrestler in NCAA history, after all, hails from the Heber Valley Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson, who earned a perfect 159-0 record and four national titles for Iowa State.
Dozens of other wrestlers, including Sanderson's three brothers, have made the Wasps proud as they've pursued success on college wrestling mats across the country.
Still, on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon last week, the Wasatch High wrestling community enjoyed a unique experience, even in a place where wrestling glory is plentiful.
Four Wasatch High wrestlers signed National Letters of Intent to wrestle for four different Division I programs.
"It's unusual," said Wasatch wrestling coach Steve Sanderson. "Generally we have one or two kids, but never that many in one group, and all to major universities."
Jake Salazar signed with Michigan, but he will serve an LDS mission before wrestling for the Wolverines. Salazar is a gifted athlete who won three state titles, has been an All-American multiple times and finished the season ranked No. 5 at 152 pounds in W.I.N. magazine. He was also the MVP of his football team.
"Jake is just a great kid," said Sanderson. "He's an extremely hard-working kid. If you put Jake's work capacity in a 200-pound kid, you'd have a Division I football player. But he's 150 pounds. He'll
have an opportunity in wrestling."
Ethan Smith is also a three-time state champion for the Wasps at 160 pounds. He finished fourth at the Senior Nationals and also competed for the school in track and field's long jump. He was an all-state football player and, like Salazar, he will serve an LDS mission and then head to Purdue University to wrestle.
"He comes from a family of wrestlers," said Sanderson. "His grandfather built a dynasty at Delta High School ... He's a really hard-working, athletic kid."
Blake Mangum signed with Oklahoma University and is the only wrestler of the four who didn't grow up in the Heber Valley. He transferred to Wasatch High midway through high school. He is a four-time region champ and placed at the state tournament four times as well. He finished his high school career an impressive 182-26.
"He's a tremendous worker," said Sanderson. "He's fun to work with because he picks things up very quickly and wasn't afraid to try new things."
Cole Shafer is a two-time state champion at 171 pounds who signed with Iowa State, where he will wrestle for coach Cael Sanderson. Also a member of the Wasps football team, he was the 5A outstanding wrestler for upper weights in 2006. He is accomplished in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling and placed second in both Greco-Roman and freestyle at the West Regional Tournament in Las Vegas last month.
"He's a tremendous kid," said coach Steve Sanderson. "He's just another kid who will do whatever you tell him to do. He's also the kind of kid who, if you need something, you could call. He has impeccable manners. He's just one of those kids whose hard to replace. I've had a great time with Cole."
What makes Wasatch High so successful at finding college opportunities for its wrestlers when many Division I colleges have eliminated their wrestling programs?
First, Sanderson, who wrestled at BYU, said youngsters must be exposed to wrestling early. In fact, he said the sport has never been more popular among youngsters than it is today.
"We give them a chance to wrestle at a young age," he said. "It's a recreation program ... They just get to wrestle and have fun, and then after they've done that two or three years, it gets more competitive. They may or may not go on, but they've been exposed to wrestling. They know the game."
That may be a key difference in communities like Delta, Vernal and Heber City, where wrestling is still king in the community.
"Everybody knows the game; everybody knows wrestling," he said. "It's important to the community, so it's important to the kids. When they get the chance to jump in, they have to fill the shoes of the guy that left, and that may be tough. It's a tradition that perpetuates itself."
Secondly, the coaches have to work just as hard as the athletes studying the sport and its ever-evolving techniques and strategies. As Sanderson put it, "We have to stay on top of the game."
And finally, the wrestlers have to have the chance to wrestle on a national stage. College wrestling coaches go to elite tournaments to offer the few scholarships available to the very best athletes out there. There is only one local wrestling program at Utah Valley State College and that means most of the state's wrestlers will leave to compete elsewhere.
Sanderson feels badly that so many colleges have opted to eliminated wrestling programs, especially with so many talented athletes right here in Utah. But the scholarships, state championships and accolades aren't really the greatest reward for most of those who toil on a wrestling mat day after day."I think the biggest thing kids get from wrestling is a sense of accomplishment," said Sanderson. "They're out on the mat by themselves. It's not a team sport. It's not somebody else's fault you didn't win ... It's just you; you're responsible. I think that's invaluable."
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