Warm welcome for wrestlers; Japanese team on tour of Oregon finds Sweet Home lives up to name

Toshiki Sakurai enjoyed his trip to Oregon as a member of the Oregon-Japan Cultural Exchange wrestling team last week.

But he said the final stop, in Sweet Home, was the best €“ especially getting to stay overnight at Wendi Melcher’s house.

“She’s very energetic,” he said in Japanese of Melcher, who is known for her high-energy personality, which is rather rare in more staid Japan.

The 13 wrestlers and three coaches from central and northern Japan, who were on a 10-day tour of Oregon, made four stops at some of the better wrestling schools in the state €“ Henley, Cottage Grove, Scappoose and Sweet Home, where they wrestled freestyle exhibition matches against local all-stars and visited some state landmarks such as Crater Lake and the Lava Beds National Monument.

It was the first time since 2002 that a Japanese team has been in Sweet Home, Coach Steve Thorpe said, though Canadians and South Africans have made cultural exchange visits in recent years.

Japanese Team Manager Mitsuo Ishiwata said the team that visited Oregon this year is one of two junior national select teams chosen to visit the United States. The other toured California, he said.

The California team was comprised of wrestlers from southern Japan, while the team that visited Sweet Home is made up of wrestlers and coaches from central and northern Japan.

The visitors were skilled, most having placed at the top of the Japanese high school championships in either freestyle or Greco wrestling.

“The caliber of wrestler that came here this year was better than last (time),” Thorpe said after the Japanese swept the competition before a full grandstand in the gym Wednesday night.

Two Sweet Home wrestlers, Brock Crocker and Kris Newport, gave their opponents a run for their money before losing in the third round, and Kyle Hummer drew a laugh from the visitors’ bench when he surprised his opponent with an aggressive attack in the first round €“ then lost.

“We had some good matches,” Thorpe said. The crowd, which included many students who don’t normally attend wrestling matches, enjoyed the rollicking freestyle, which includes more throws and depends less on the single-leg takedowns that most wrestlers prefer in the collegiate or folkstyle wrestling more common in American high school competition.

The visitors worked out with the Sweet Home team on Tuesday and attended class with Husky wrestlers on Wednesday morning, then joined a PE class for a game of dodge ball before leaving for lunch at McDonalds with their Sweet Home escorts. It was clear that the visitors weren’t worrying about their weight, since their competition season isn’t in progress now, as they all loaded up on burgers and fries. Meanwhile, most of the Huskies, who are trying to maintain their weight levels, simply sat and watched them eat.

The coaches, meanwhile, were taken by Melcher to a logging site where they watched trees being harvested €“ an experience they were clearly impressed by on their return.

After lunch they all were taken to a private residence in the Holley area where they got a chance to try shooting skeet €“ something none had previously tried in Japan, where guns are tightly regulated.

The skeet outing was arranged by Merritt Schilling, father of assistant coach Steve Schilling and grandfather of Husky freshman 103-pounder Colton Schilling, who was one of the original eight Oregon high school wrestlers to host Japan on the first cultural Oregon Cultural Exchange visit in 1963.

Melcher said she thoroughly enjoyed hosting Sakurai, 18, who weighs in at 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and heavyweight Tomoyuki Oka, 18, and the three coaches. She said the latter were amazed when they visited the logging operation.

“It was a great experience,” she said. “Them seeing something for the first time, it was incredible to see that in an adult.”

“They can eat,” she added. “I can’t wait for them to come back next year. These guys were awesome.”

The match on Wednesday night pitted the Japanese team against the valley all-star team of Sweet Home’s Colton Schilling,

Tyler Holly, Mitch Grove, Colby DeCleve, Tyler Cowger, Taylor Tagle, Marshall Arndt, Kyle Hummer, Kris Newport, Jacob Jewell, Brock Crocker, Zach Gill and Christian Whitfield; and Blake Woosley and Henry Vaughn of Philomath; Zach Cardwell of Lowell; Robbie Federicko of Cascade; and Hayden Klosf and Vonn Lambert of West Albany, coached by Thorpe.

Sweet Home seniors Tagle, Holly and Grove said the visitors’ style was “completely different,” as Grove put it, but, Holly said, “it was kind of cool how they did things.”

“They wait for something to happen, then they react,” Grove said of the Japanese team’s strategy.

Team Leader Kuzumi Hanawa, who said it was his first trip to America, said his team particularly enjoyed the competition and the home stay opportunities.

Although his wrestlers only lost three matches on the trip, Hanawa said it was a good experience.

“Americans use college rules and they’re not as used to the throws,” he said. “There’s not much we can do about that. They’re at a disadvantage when they wrestle us.”

“We’ve had no real injuries,” he said. “I’m happy about that.”

Kojiro Kurimori, 17, who defeated Crocker in the 60-kilogram (132 pounds) match, said he had “a great time staying with Brock.

“It’s been a blast,” he said in Japanese. “I enjoyed the home stays and the matches,” he added, noting that “American crowds are a little more energetic €“ like they’re having more fun.”

Oka, the heavyweight, got the crowd stirred up with a sumo-style pre-match foot stomp routine prior to taking on Sweet Home’s Christian Whitfield, whom he pinned.

Oka said that, unlike his 100-kilogram teammate Sakurai, he’s not thinking of pursuing professional sumo. He said his goal is to represent Japan in the Olympics and he plans to go to college and eventually get a white-collar job.

Oka said he enjoyed the trip, which he said was “very educational.”

The Sweet Home wrestlers said they had a good time too.

“(Sakurai) was a jokester,” Tagle said, adding that they had to bridge some cultural differences. “They didn’t understand what to us was funny.”

Thorpe said he thinks wrestling is unique in the opportunities the sport gives athletes to travel to other countries and compete.

“Wrestling is the most pure form of competition,” he said. “These guys, when they step on the mat, it’s a fight, it’s a battle. But at the end they’re taking pictures and joking.

“These kids had a lot of fun,” he said. “And we got to learn some new moves.”