Greg Ford Jr. will wrestle until he gets tired. So far, he’s never been scored on. Not once.
Every day, new challengers approach the Lincoln High School wrestling coach and former state champion.
“I keep telling them that a lot of guys here have not been born before the last time I was scored on,” Ford laughed. “But, still, they try all the time. Every day.”
His wrestlers respect him tremendously.
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But fear? Never.
Ford has instilled this psyche into the wrestlers who join his program — respect all, fear none.
And now entering his fourth year as the school’s coach, he’s transformed Lincoln from a program that didn’t place at Mat Classic for nine consecutive years into one that earned its highest finish since 2000 last year, placing 20th.
Not that Ford is satisfied with three consecutive finishes in the top 30 at state, four consecutive district titles and a 32-1 record in league play the past four years. He said Lincoln’s motto this year is Next Level Abes.
“When I was hired, I told them that by Year Four we were going to be competing for a state title,” Ford said. “I feel like now we have enough experience as far as guys going to state and knowing the atmosphere, and we put in a lot of work in the offseason. That has showed me they are ready to make the next step.”
Ford is often more than a coach.
Sometimes, he’s the ride home, and his house is the place to be for video games, wrestling documentaries, going over film, hanging out with his two dogs and sleeping over the night before matches.
“Dude, in Madden, I’m the only one who has scored on him so far,” said Will Willsey, the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the 220-pound weight class, regardless of classification, by Washington Wrestling Report. “We hold tournaments as players, and we kind of shove him out because he’s too good.”
Ford has made wrestling fun, even at a school where the sport isn’t as recognizable as basketball, football and track and field. The team sometimes is forced to practice in the cafeteria or on the football field.
He’s also made it a home for some.
Jeremias Sandoval walks about three miles to school every morning from his aunt’s house, but he’s sometimes able to get a ride home with Ford after practice.
Sandoval, in some ways, represents the demographic of wrestlers who enter the Lincoln program.
Like about half of Lincoln’s 50 wrestlers, Sandoval didn’t start wrestling until high school, after Ford persuaded him to try out. The junior reached the state tournament last year in the 126-pound class.
His mother died when he was six. He’s had to remove himself from gangs and drugs, though the pull from some family members entrenched in that life still exists, he said.
“I was in drugs a little bit when I was growing up because I was just there,” Sandoval said. “Everybody else was doing it, so I had to do it so I could fit in. But then I got to middle school and I was just like, ‘I got to stop.’
“I just didn’t want that life for me and my family when I grow up.”
He now has a 3.6 grade-point average, played on the football team and plans to end the year with a state wrestling title.
He met Ford playing football. Ford is the wide receivers coach, and Sandoval plays defensive back. He saw Sandoval’s work ethic, intelligence and how he was never afraid of a challenge.
“With Coach Ford, it was like he was this big dude, big and buff and looks like he can run me over. He was super intimidating,” Sandoval said. “But he gave me a chance and he was like, ‘You could be really good.’ ”
It’s Ford’s credibility that lends him so much respect.
From the time he could walk, Ford was running on wrestling mats. He ended his high school wrestling career with 124 wins and a 140-pound state title at River Ridge in 2004. He transferred back there after helping Heritage win a 4A state team title as a junior.
His father, Greg Ford Sr., won an NAIA National Championship at 118 pounds at Central Washington University and coached there afterward. He’s now in the college’s hall of fame. So when Ford Jr. graduated high school, he was back at River Ridge soon after, helping coach his younger brother, Marques, to the 140-pound state title in 2008 and the 152-pound title in 2010.
Ford Jr. is in the process of earning his gold certification through USA wrestling. He traveled to Macon, France, with the USA junior world team this past summer.
“He’s probably one of the best technicians in the nation,” Lincoln assistant Ed Dewitt said. “We are lucky to have him.”
Ford Sr. will travel to Lincoln a few times a year from his home in Oak Grove, California, to help out. And Jason Townsend, a former wrestler at Syracuse and Hoftra and a two-time Maryland state high school champion, joined as an assistant coach this year.
“My first year I started the freestyle program and I had maybe five or seven guys and they ended up being the best guys on the team,” Ford Jr. said. “And then the next year, those numbers doubled and the following year it was like 27 guys.”
He’s learned one of the most difficult aspects is creating a practice schedule that benefits his most experienced wrestlers as much as it does those who are stepping onto the mat for the first time.
His techniques are based on what worked so well for him as a wrestler — being good on your feet and on the bottom, and teaching to constantly think ahead.
“If I can take anybody down and I can get away from everybody, then if we ever get in trouble we can just let them go and wrestle on our feet,” Ford Jr. said.
But most of his efforts are spent teaching mental toughness, and that no opponent is too great to beat.
“We try to tap into their psyche and more of the mental aspect and tried to take more of a scientific approach,” Ford Jr. said, “helping them understand why things work, why they need to be mentally tough, why they need to eat the right things so they can reach optimal performance.”
He was playing basketball with some of his players after a practice on Thursday.
“With him, it’s like he’s more than a coach,” said junior J.J. Dixon, who transferred from Decatur. “We see him as a friend, too.”
Sandoval had never wrestled before his freshman year. Then last year he reached the Tacoma Dome, but he said his nerves got the best of him under the bright lights, large crowd and landscape of wrestling mats.
But this year?
“There’s absolutely no doubt I’m going to end the season on the first-place step,” he said. “I picture it every day. I look at myself in the mirror after the shower and I say, ‘You’re gonna be the one. You’re gonna be the one to go to college. You’re gonna do all these great things and you’re gonna get after it. There’s nobody that can hold me down.’ ”
Maybe, eventually, not even his coach.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
2016-17 boys wrestling primer
TEAM TO WATCH
Bonney Lake enters as the favorite to win the 3A state title this year after placing third last year. And that’s mostly because of the Panthers’ two smallest wrestlers — Brenden Chaowanapibool and Brandon Kaylor. Kaylor, a junior with two 106-pound state titles, is competing in the 113-pound class now to make room for Chaowanapibool, a sophomore who placed sixth in the 106-pound class last year. Bonney Lake placed second at the Rose City Invite in Portland this past weekend, in an invitational made up of programs from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado, with Chaowanapibool, Kaylor and Jason Day (170) winning individual titles.
1. 4A-TITLE BOUND?: Tahoma has placed in the top 10 in the 4A Mat Classic in 12 consecutive years. That’s been overshadowed by Lake Stevens’ dominance, winning seven of the past 10 state titles, including last year. But Tahoma, with a lineup as deep as it is talented, is the favorite to win its second title since 2011. Ryden Fu, Kione Gill, Dagen Kramer, Austin Michalski, Justin Sipilia and Nick Whitehead all finished in the top five in their weight classes last year.
2. CARDINALS RELOAD: Orting was 10.5 points short of a 2A state team title last year, losing 154-143.5 to Toppenish. But it returns a pair of two-time state champions in Alex Cruz (113) and Ben Gore (145). Both of them, and Evan Barger (220) were part of the Cardinals’ squad at the Walsh Ironman in Ohio this past weekend. Cruz, a junior, has won back-to-back state titles, while Gore won as a freshman, took third as a sophomore, and won again last year.
3. PIRATES REBUILD: Vashon Island is coming off a third-place Class 1A finish at Mat Classic, but lost seven seniors to graduation from last year. Coach Anders Blomgren, entering his 17th year at Vashon, took Adrian St. Germain, Luke Larson and Hunter Burger to the Cadet Freestyle and Greco Roman Nationals this past summer in Fargo, North Dakota, to help prepare them for this season. St. Germain won the 145-pound state title as a freshman last year.
WRESTLERS TO WATCH
Brandon Kaylor, Bonney Lake, jr.: Ranked No. 7 in the nation by FloWrestling in the 106-pound weight class. Has two state titles.
Nick Whitehead, Tahoma, sr.: Owns Tahoma’s career pins record with 88 and has 114 wins. But hoping this year ends in first title.
Josh Franich, Puyallup, sr.: Hearing-impairment (he’s deaf in left ear) didn’t stop Franich from 132-pound state title a year ago.
Ben Gore, Orting, sr.: He’s reached the state semifinals three consecutive years and could end career as a three-time champ.
Flor Parker-Borrero, Wilson, jr.: With two titles her first two years, Parker-Borrero on pace to join exclusive four-time girls state champion club.
BEST OF THE REST
CLASS 4A: Austin Michalski, Tahoma, so. (2015-16 season: 106 pounds); C.J. Richmond, Sumner, so. (113); Mason Eaglin, South Kitsap, jr. (120); Lane Holland, Graham-Kapowsin, jr. (126); Jake Treece, Enumclaw, sr. (132); Layn Pannkuk, Olympia, sr. (138); Quinton Southcott, Enumclaw, jr. (138); Trace Fischlin, Sumner, sr. (152); Alex Stuart, Curtis, sr. (170); Kione Gill, Tahoma, jr. (182); Calhoun Helmberger, Curtis, sr. (220).
CLASS 3A: Brenden Chaowanapibool, Bonney Lake, so. (106); Michael Campigotto, Peninsula, sr. (113); Mason Sabin, Bonney Lake, jr. (126); Dante Springsteen, Bethel, sr. (152); Zach Koeller, Bonney Lake, sr. (152); Adam Benson, Timberline (160), sr.; Keegan Dorsey, Bonney Lake, sr. (170); Tyler Losch, Yelm, sr. (182); Jeremy Smith, Yelm, sr. (195); Will Willsey, Lincoln, sr. (220); Jackson Potts, Foss, sr. (285).
CLASS 2A: Max Wheeler, White River, so. (106); Matthew Anfeldt, Tumwater, sr. (106); Alex Cruz, Orting, jr. (113); Ryan Redford, White River, jr. (132); Nathan Moore, White River, so. (138); Blayne Haderman, River Ridge, sr. (220); Cy Hicks, Tumwater, jr. (285); Kenny Marll, Orting, sr. (285).
CLASS 1A: Luke Larson, Vashon, jr. (113); Adrian St. Germain, Vashon, so. (145).
GIRLS: Raisa Pleasants, Thomas Jefferson, so. (100); Brooklyn Bartelson, Puyallup, sr. (110); Auna Carpio, Decatur, sr. (115); Jasmine Pleasants, Thomas Jefferson, sr. (130); Erin Redford, White River, sr. (130); Sabrina Perez, Kentwood, jr. (155); Tally Thomas, Federal Way, sr. (170); Jacey Linder, White River, sr. (190); Mariah Stewart, Federal Way, jr. (235).
TJ Cotterill: email@example.com