ERRY — Seconds after Perry's doubleheader with Ponca City and Kingfisher at John Divine Hall, the maroon mats are invaded by pee wee wrestlers.
One slaps on a discarded varsity headgear that swallows his head and starts an impromptu match.
"Twooooooooo!" another pee wee squeaks as his friend is slammed down on the mat for a takedown.
It's a sight repeated every generation in Perry where the seeds of achievement are sewn at a young age.
Maroon wrestling is a power unlike any in Oklahoma when it comes to longevity and winning.
Just off I-35 on the rolling plains of central Oklahoma, Perry is a place where all but one of the school's 10 wrestling coaches grew up in Perry and later wrestled at Perry, walking the same path as the athletes they coach.
It's a place where every varsity wrestler over the last 50 years has been a part of at least one state championship.
Perry's wrestling program has averaged 8.4 state qualifiers each season since 1942 and crowned 153 individual champions, more than any high school program in the country.
Jenks' and Tulsa Union's football dynasties are products of the last 15 years. Perry's dates back to 1925 when Jap Wood won the school's first individual title nine years before the first "official" state tournament was held.
This weekend, 85 years later, Perry will attempt to win its 37th state title when the 89th Oklahoma High School Wrestling Championships begin today at State Fair Arena.
"Sometimes it amazes me how we keep coming up with so many tremendous athletes," Perry native and wrestling legend Danny Hodge said. "Here we are this small city, but we beat the big schools. How does that happen?"
A CULTURE OF CONTINUITY
The late John Divine wasn't Perry's first wrestling coach, but his mark on the program is indelible. Beginning in 1931, Divine coached Perry for 30 seasons, winning three state titles. The building Perry's varsity team wrestles in is named after him. He coached four wrestlers who later became Perry coaches themselves, winning a combined 20 championships.
Divine made Perry wrestling a lifestyle.
Hodge remembers getting ready to feast on ice cream and pie one day at a restaurant in town, only to be interrupted by Divine who took his meal-to-be and ate it in front of him.
"He said wrestlers don't eat pie and ice cream," Hodge said.
A succession of coaches followed Divine and while their methods may have differed slightly, the common trait was the same. They were all from Perry and faced the same challenges as the kids they coached.
"I know what it's like to grow up here," current coach Scott Chenoweth said. "I was exactly where these kids were 25 years ago. I know what it's like to be a scared freshman. I know what it's like to be a senior wanting to win one more title. It's a common bond we have from the beginning."
Perry's culture of continuity is part fate and part design. Even when Chenoweth was wrestling in college at Central Oklahoma, he knew he wanted to return to Perry to coach. At the time, former coach Leonard Shelton was the school's athletic director but came back to the mat for one more season in 1995 as a bridge to the Chenoweth era.
"He cared about the program and I care about the program so much I won't step out until there's a suitable person to take over," Chenoweth said. "Part of it is planning and part of it is fortune."
But evolution has also played a role. Even the greatest dynasties must grow. Chenoweth wrestled for Steve Randall who coached three championship teams. The Randall era changed the way Perry approached wrestling on the mat and in the summers, where wrestling season was extended to include camps and national tournaments.
"He was less than 10 years removed from wrestling at (Oklahoma State University) and he brought in a new skill set, updated techniques," Chenoweth said. "His focus was very technical, whereas before there was an emphasis on what those guys had learned at (the University of Oklahoma), pinning people and overpowering them."
Hayden Workman stands under a list of former Perry champions. Current wrestlers know the school’s tradition well and strive to add another layer to it during their careers.
A CITY IN LOVE WITH WRESTLING
Fried chicken and homemade pies are two of the Kumback Lunch's specialties, but something almost always on the menu is wrestling talk over morning coffee. Chenoweth's phone often rings early on weekdays. It's usually the "guys" at the café.
"They want to know who is hurt or who will be at what weight," Chenoweth said. "You go into the Conoco and it can be a 20 minute trip. We have a larger percentage of our population that understands wrestling and is supportive of wrestling than other communities."
Perry home duals are broadcast on the local cable channel. Each wrestler has a poster sponsored by a business in town.
Marilee Macias and her husband Tony have owned the Kumback Lunch for nearly 40 years. Tony wrestled at Perry and at Oklahoma. The restaurant's walls are covered in Perry and OU wrestling photos, including Hodge's Sports Illustrated cover and another with Will Rogers.
"Wrestling has always been very special to folks here," Marilee Macias said. "People come here and talk about it. They go to the matches and talk about it. It's a large part of who we are as a community."
It's a community that has changed over the past 50 years. Once a city built on agriculture, Ditch Witch is now the town's largest employer and most parents of Perry wrestlers no longer farm. But the common traits endure — hard work and a willingness to learn.
"You know all their parents, and for the most part they're all good kids, which make them easier to coach," Shelton said. "They all work a lot harder than we did back then, but the basics, the way the kids are, is the same."
Chenoweth said his ultimate objective as a coach is to make his wrestlers become self motivated which makes the training that follows easier. Part of that devotion comes from his shared experience growing up in much the same way his wrestlers do.
"I've been willing to do things that if it wasn't my own high school, the program that helped me get a college degree and be successful, maybe you wouldn't put that little extra effort into it," he said.
Ultimately, that extra effort shows up on the mat, evidenced by the 153 individual champions and 36 team championships.
"We never really had those dips other schools have," Shelton said. "Some schools win two or three and go down the tubes. We've never really fell off the wagon."
At state tournaments, Perry fans show up in legions and the wrestlers can't help but feed on the emotion.
Ladd Rupp won four state titles at Perry, joining Cecil Beisel as the program's only four-time champions. Rupp, who started wrestling at age 6, is now a freshman on the OSU wrestling team.
"When you're on the team it's not like you're the only one winning the title," Rupp said. "The whole town is backing you and they want it as bad as you do."
Confidence and personal growth are part of the experience. Dennis Brand was raised on a farm outside Perry. He won an individual state championship under Rex Edgar and later wrestled at OU. Today he's the CEO of BancFirst. Brand credits Perry wrestling with helping him develop discipline that paid off later in life.
"(Edgar) had us brainwashed that you had two points on your opponent because you were a Perry Maroon," Brand said. "You were prepared for competition. In the business world, there is clearly competition. The demands of wrestling helped me develop work ethic early in life."
The Perry dynamic has a way of recycling itself. Fathers dream of seeing their sons on the mat and kids dream of the day they are fathers and their sons take their turn adding another layer of tradition.
"Whenever I have kids I'm going to stick them in there, and I'm sure they're going to love it," Perry sixth grade wrestler Cody Delaney said.
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