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Wrestling Takes Hold Among Area Youth : Club: In only six years, the turnout has increased from eight to 60. About 100 are expected to try out this year.


EL MONTE — The San Gabriel Valley Kids Wrestling Club is wrestling with a popularity problem.

In six years, the club has grown from eight members to 60. This year, the organization expects about 100 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 to take to the mats.

John Morales, one of the club's founders, has no trouble pinning down the reason for growth, which might force the organization to launch satellite programs throughout the San Gabriel Valley.

"It's getting bigger and more popular because kids like expending their energy and parents like the discipline it requires," Morales said. "It's also a little bit different than sports like soccer and baseball because it's an individual sport as well as a team sport."

The San Gabriel Valley club has produced several outstanding high school wrestlers, including Rosemead's Conan Riojas, who won a Southern Section title last season and is competing on the national level this summer.

Earlier this year, club members won championships in seven of nine age divisions, and the team placed first in the California Age Group Wrestling Assn.

Chris Lopez of El Monte, 10, and Lorenzo Butanda of West Covina, 9, also won titles in freestyle and Greco-Roman events at the Western Regional Championships in Utah in June.

"It was hard at first, but once you get used to it, you get better and better," said Butanda, who has been wrestling for three years. "I like it better than some other sports because there's more action in it."

Said Lopez, who started with the club when he was 5: "I like it when people clap for me after I pin someone. I also play football and do judo. Wrestling helps me out in football because the wrestling stance is like being in a football stance."

The San Gabriel Valley club has grown from its roots in Rosemead and now draws participants from Monterey Park to Pomona. The club practices in El Monte one night a week in November, two nights a week in December and three nights a week in January. The tournament season runs from January through March and includes travel throughout the Southland as well as San Diego and Las Vegas.

The club also sponsors a sports camp during the summer at Arroyo High.

"Some kids come in and they are champions right away because of their athletic ability, but most of our kids come in and build themselves into champions," said Morales, who wrestled for and graduated from El Monte High in 1972. "Sometimes we get boys from the community who have a reputation for fights or having trouble in school.

"We focus their energy onto the mats. Many parents have said that the discipline, confidence and self-esteem the boys have gained has made a difference in their behavior at home and at school."

Lynette Butanda, Lorenzo's mother, said wrestling has taught her son to be accountable for his actions.

"Since they're going out there and doing an individual sport, they feel like they have accomplished something for themselves as well as the team," she said. "When they get out on the mat and they win their match, they know that they were responsible. If they lose, there is no one else to blame."

Morales, who works for the El Monte Unified School District, said the club is seeking a new coach to oversee the program next season. Bobby Jones, the team's original coach, returned to his native Oklahoma last year.

"We're looking for someone who is enthusiastic and can motivate kids," Morales said. "Someone well-versed in freestyle, Greco-Roman and collegiate wrestling who has the time to put out there for practices and tournaments. It doesn't have to be someone with a son in the program."

The San Gabriel Valley always produces a few Southern Section champions each year. And with club alumni making their way into the high school ranks, Morales said he envisions a day when the area is home to many team and individual champions.

"I would venture to say that within four or five years, the San Gabriel Valley will be the toughest area in the Southern Section," Morales said. "The talent is out there, we just need to introduce kids and their parents to the possibilities."

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