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Master of the Mats : He's the Reason Wrestling Is Grand at Canyon : Coach Gary Bowden Has a Dynasty on His Hands

February 05, 1989|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

On the banks of the Riverside Freeway, underneath the mega-dwellings that dot Anaheim Hills, stands Canyon High School. And in the Canyon High gym, in its cavernous wrestling room, is a partially bald, barrel-chested man who failed at virtually every sport he tried, including a two-day, eighth-grade stint as a tackling dummy.

This is Gary Bowden, The Bear to his 100-plus kids, Master Manipulator to those who have seen him operate and architect/coach of the best wrestling team in Orange County this decade.

His Canyon teams have won three Southern Section 4-A championships (1984, 1987 and 1988) and are ranked No. 1 in that division this season. Overall--that's varsity, junior varsity and frosh-soph--Canyon has a combined dual-meet record of 399-30-2 in the 1980s, a winning percentage of .928.

In the past nine years, the varsity has finished seasons ranked No. 1 in Orange County four times, No. 2 four times and No. 3 once. It has won nine consecutive Century League championships, and Tuesday, against Santa Ana Valley, it will very likely win its 50th consecutive league dual meet.

"Canyon (wrestling) is the envy of the county," said Terry Lorentzen, Edison coach.

And it's all because there is always some part of Gary Bowden, body and/or soul, in the gym.

"He is Canyon wrestling," said Harris Oishi, a Canyon assistant for 10 years.

During the season, Bowden puts in 40 hours a week coaching and when he's not coaching, he's thinking about coaching--a fact that has aggravated his chronic insomnia to the point that he has to take sleeping pills the night before a match.

Bowden says he's learning to relax but that's news to his wife, Judy.

"He'll be working in the yard but I'll know what's going through his mind is who's going to wrestle at 119 (pounds) next season," she said.

Added assistant coach Mike Gayer: "The man is a stress monster."

Bowden, 41, is the only wrestling coach Canyon has had. In 15 years, the man who never considered coaching as a career in high school or college has learned to do some things very well, but none as proficiently as recruiting non-athletes and transforming them into very good wrestlers.

Here's typical Bowden:

"Pardon me, are you a wrestler? You're not? You look like a wrestler, did you know that? You're an athlete, I can tell that by the way you walk, but you also walk like a wrestler. I've been around wrestling 20 years and I know a wrestler when I see one. If you're not a wrestler, you should be one."

So maybe you've heard better lines at office parties, but the bottom line is this: Bowden got 110 kids to come out for wrestling this season.

"It's incredible," Gayer said. "He gets kids who have no business being out for a sport or kids who are much better at basketball or soccer to come out and he makes them good wrestlers. He's to wrestling what Ronald Reagan is to politics."

The fact is Bowden has turned numerous kids who had little background in sports into champions of one kind or another.

Take Matt Shaff, whose most conspicuous physical feature was three scoops of brown hair piled on top of a 90-pound body when he caught Bowden's eye four years ago. Shaff was weak--"If you had asked me to drop and give you one push-up, I couldn't have done it."--and had little experience in organized sports. Still, Bowden promised that he would one day be a 190-pound "stud" if he came out for wrestling.

The result? Shaff is a senior wrestling on the junior varsity, nothing to be ashamed of since Canyon's junior varsity is better than a good portion of the county's varsity squads. In 1984, the Canyon junior varsity went to a varsity wrestling tournament at Brea-Olinda High and won the championship.

Shaff can now bench-press 160 pounds and is willing, bordering on frantic, to drop and give you 25 push-ups.

His body, however, fell 70 pounds short of the 190-pound goal.

"That doesn't matter, I feel like I'm 190 pounds," he said. "And I don't feel bad about not making the varsity. Our whole program is so strong, just to be a part of it makes you feel great. Anyway, I look up on the wall and I see the pictures of those wrestlers and a lot of them never made it to varsity and look where they are."

Where they are is on the walls surrounding the wrestling room, Canyon's wrestling hall of fame. Now 80 members strong, it's a collection of young men frozen in awkward wrestling poses--elbows drawn close to their bodies, fingers extended--which makes it appear they are really into tickling.

There is Rocky Flint, Canyon's only state champion, and Tim O'Neil, a state runner-up revered as the school's greatest wrestler because of his work ethic. There are the nine Southern Sections champions, as well as numerous league champions.

But there are also the likes of Darrin Louder, another kid who never made it to the varsity, but who "had absolute integrity," according to Bowden. And there is Charlie Armendarez, a so-so varsity wrestler who was "trustworthy."

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