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Thursday, June 17, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wrestling -- State Grapples With Way To Revive Sport

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

It was 1970, and wrestling was a main event at the University of Washington.

The Huskies posted their first of five straight top-10 finishes at the NCAA championships that year, and a 142-pound UW sophomore, Larry Owings, made college wrestling history when he upset Iowa State's renowned Dan Gable in their NCAA final. Gable had never lost in his high-school or college career.

Under Coach Jimmy Smith, the Huskies attracted larger and larger crowds to Edmundson Pavilion. In 1972, more than 9,000 gathered to watch Washington challenge Iowa State and Chris Taylor, its 400-pound heavyweight.

"It was one of the most exciting dual matches I have ever experienced," said Owings, now facilities director for the Molalla School District near Portland. "The crowd was great and very loud. We won by a point."

Washington finished fourth in the NCAA championships that year. A shoulder injury halted Owings' bid for a second individual NCAA title, but teammate Bill Murdock became champion in the 177-pound weight class. "We had a fantastic program," Owings recalled. "It was a big deal at the school."

By 1980, the big deal of the early '70s ceased to exist. Spurred by the demands of Title IX, the 1972 gender-equity law that mandates proportional athletic opportunities for collegiate men and women, plus a difficult economic climate, Athletic Director Mike Lude announced that Washington was dropping wrestling and men's gymnastics.

Since 1986, when Washington State eliminated wrestling, no Division I wrestling has existed in Washington, a state where participation in high-school wrestling (8,055 boys in 275 schools) ranks ninth in the nation.

Today, as Seattle prepares to host the 1999 U.S. Freestyle World Team Trials this weekend, only four Washington colleges offer wrestling: Division II Central Washington, Division III Pacific Lutheran and two community colleges, Highline and Yakima Valley.

"Any high-school wrestler in Washington who wants to compete at the Division I level has to go out of state to do it," said Monroe Coach Randy Berg, whose school has produced seven state champions in the past six years. "That's a shame."

This year's NCAA champion at 165 pounds, Boise State's Kirk White, is a graduate of Tacoma's Curtis High. The runner-up in the 174-pound division, Michigan's Otto Olson, wrestled for Everett.

"If you took all the kids with Washington backgrounds who competed in this year's NCAAs and put them on the same team," said Berg, "the team would have finished seventh."

Wrestling continues to be a big spectator draw in Washington. The sport produced a sellout at Edmundson Pavilion at the 1990 Goodwill Games.

The 1996 Olympic Team Trials at the Spokane Arena pulled in 24,578 over three sessions.

Tomorrow and Saturday, trials for the U.S. freestyle team will be at Mercer Arena. Winners in eight weight classes will represent the U.S. at next month's Pan American Games in Winnipeg and at the World Championships in Ankara, Turkey, in October.

Oregon and Oregon State continue to support wrestling programs but, along with Arizona State (NCAA champions in 1988) and Stanford, they are the only Pac-10 schools to still offer wrestling.

Today, only 94 Division I programs survive of the approximately 170 programs that existed in the late '70s.

Dan Hanika, coach at Kamiak High School, with guidance from longtime area wrestling advocate Mike Hess, coach at Edmonds-Woodway, is at work on a new pitch to bring the sport back to UW.

In March he met with Marie Tuite, UW senior associate athletic director, to discuss a strategy that includes a gender-balancing move to elevate a successful women's water polo club team to varsity status.

UW Athletic Director Barbara Hedges says she is willing to listen.

"There's no question that wrestling is a great sport, and over the years we have talked to a few people who are very interested in renewing the wrestling program," she said. "It's not just a funding issue, but a facility issue, too. We have pretty much maximized the use of our facilities.

"I'm always willing to sit down and talk with people, but I don't want to get their hopes up."

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Wrestlemania.

What: U.S. Freestyle Wrestling World Team Trials.Winners in eight weight classes will represent U.S. at Pan American Games in July (in Winnipeg) and World Championships in October (in Ankara, Turkey). When: Tomorrow and Saturday. Where: Mercer Arena, Seattle Center. Format: winners of preliminary tournament (Sessions 1-2) face national champions in best-of-three competition (Sessions 3-4). Schedule: Tomorrow - Session 1, 10 a.m. (tickets $8); Session 2, 7 p.m. ($8). Saturday - Free clinic, 10:30 a.m.; Session 3, noon ($12); Session 4, 7 p.m. ($16). Tickets: Individual prices listed in schedule; all-session pass ($30) and group discounts also available. Call Ticketmaster, (206) 628-0888, or www.ticketmaster.com

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Top-10 ranking.

Washington high schools rank ninth nationally in wrestling participation, though the state ranks only 16th in all prep sports: Rank State Wrestlers.

1. California 23,163.

2. Ohio 13,682.

3. Illinois 13,285.

4. New York 11,992.

5. Michigan 11,263.

6. Indiana 9,041.

7. New Jersey 8,927.

8. Pennsylvania 8,406.

9. Washington 8,055. 10. Minnesota 7,366.

Source: 1997-98 survey by National Federation of State High School Associations.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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