BRADLEY COOK / Flashbox Studio – Thurston’s Mike Simons was recently named coach of the year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Associations.
SPRINGFIELD – There must be some kind of “secret sauce” to get 35 girls out to wrestling practice every day.
Well, truth be told, there is one little trick that Thurston’s Mike Simons likes to employ.
“2017 was the first year where we had a good group of girls and wrestling was becoming popular across the country so I jumped on the bandwagon,” Simons said during an interview last week in the Colts’ gym.
“Since I teach here, I started recruiting players. I didn’t sell it as wrestling at first, because most people don’t want to come out for wrestling. I sold it as crossfit training, and before you knew it, we had 35 girls here and girls started winning state titles.
“I would tell them, whether you’re a volleyball player or a soccer player, I’ve got something that can help you out. They would get up here and figure out that wrestling is cool and they learn self-defense, and a lot of times wrestling would wind up being their favorite sport.”
Nowadays, convincing kids to wrestle isn’t such a hard-sell. And Simons has made a name for himself – he was recently chosen as Boys Wrestling Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.
Kit Harris, a girls wrestling coach at Baldwin High School in Baldwin City, Kan., was also honored.
Simons’ boys teams – with about 45 daily attendees this year – have finished in the top four at state for four years running, while the girls have won four consecutive state championships.
The walls in the gym are quickly filling up with names of state champions since Brett Arand became the first champion in 2004.
It seems everyone who goes through Simons’ program leaves a winner – whether they take home a championship trophy or not.
Simons’ most famous Thurston grad is Colby Covington, one of the world’s most popular UFC fighters. The No. 1 contender faces Jorge Masvidal in Las Vegas on March 5 in a welterweight fight.
He’s had only one undefeated wrestler – Avery Jaramillo in 2019. “Our wrestlers are always battle-tested,” Simons said. “We wrestle every top program in the state.”
Kaylee Annis, a junior, is Oregon’s top-ranked 105-pound girl after winning state as a sophomore at 100 pounds. Her sister Mariah finished fourth in the state in 2017 and her brother Colton is a freshman.
BRADLEY COOK / Flashbox Studio – Simons with Kaylee Annis, who ranked #1 in the state (105 pounds.)
“I’d like to get my name on the wall four times and I’d like to get my brother’s name on the wall four times for a total of 10 Annis names on the wall,” Kaylee said. “That would be really cool.”
Simons is especially proud of the way his students are working – on the mat and in the classroom.
“We were the No. 1 wrestling team in 5A for academics last year,” he said. “Only a select group will go on to wrestle in college. That diploma and those grades will stick with them forever.
“We have a bunch of tough kids and a bunch of smart kids. A lot of people give wrestlers a bad rap – ‘Oh, they’re just a bunch of meatheads.’ But we have smart kids – they’re smart on the mat, they’re smart in the classroom – and I hope they make smart decisions with their life.
“The biggest thing about coming out for the wrestling team, you learn a lot about life. These are life skills these kids learn in here. And this comes from Dan Gable, if you can wrestle, anything else is easy.”
Gable, you might recall, is the legendary wrestler who lost in what might have been the most famous upset in collegiate wrestling history, as Washington’s Larry Owings stunned Iowa State’s Gable in the NCAA 142-pound finals.
As great as they’ve been in wrestling, the Colts have been even more dominant in football, and all of the bigger wrestlers – from 182 pounds and up – also play football.
“We have about 15 football players overall,” Simons said. “I always tell them it’s a great way to get in shape. If you can wrestle, football is easy.”
Back in the day, Simons was a notable wrestler in his own right. He finished second in the national high school freestyle championships. He wrestled at Oregon State and is still among the Beavers’ Top 50 winners even though he suffered several knee injuries that short-circuited his career.
“I told the kids I was supposed to be a blue-chip college wrestler and it didn’t turn out that way for me,” Simons said. “I think that’s why I’m a good coach, because I can relate to what they’re going through.
“The fog comes off the glass and you can see through the glass now. I lost one of my best kids this year to a knee injury. I can relate to him and let him know this isn’t the end of the world and he’ll learn from it, and you don’t know why it’s you sometimes.”
With Simons, athletes know they’re being treated like family.
“I treat all of them like they’re my own kids – I love all of them, pat them on the back, the kids feel comfortable with me. I’m their coach, counselor, janitor, athletic trainer, I’ve always got their back …
“I try to encourage them to play other sports besides wrestling,” Simons said. “Play soccer, play volleyball, be on the baseball team, play football, be in the band, do theater, be well-rounded, and enjoy their high school experience.”
Through their coach, they can even get a taste of other countries’ high school experience.
“I’m the cultural exchange coach for the state of Oregon,” Simons said. “During non-Covid years, we send kids to South Africa, Russia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Switzerland. Our kids get to experience other cultures and their kids get to see the kids they’ve met here. It’s pretty cool.”
Simons missed out on coaching his daughter, Madison Marvin, by two years, but now she’s his assistant coach. His father, who’s in the Oregon chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, has Parkinson’s now, and stays in a senior living center in Springfield.
Still, he’s managed to create one big happy family environment within the Thurston wrestling room.
“I teach Health and PE, so I get to move around with the kids,” Simons said. “And I love teaching the freshmen because I get to know them all the way through high school and, like I say, I joke around about tricking them into coming out, and they love it or hate it, and then I pat them on the back either way and say thanks for giving it a try.
“Wrestling is a big deal here. We’ve turned wrestling into something that people want to be a part of. It’s taken a hit these last couple of years but we’ll get it back to where it was. A lot of people want to be a part of winners and be a part of something that has tradition and we’ve been able to build that, so it’s been pretty neat.”