Justin Acuff aims for three state titles in four years


Of the News-Register

Before he steps onto the wrestling mat for a match, Justin Acuff pictures how he’s going to win.

Takedowns. Near-falls. Counters for opponents’ moves. Sheridan head coach Ray Carpenter, who first worked with Acuff when he was nine years old, believes in the practice of visualization. It’s served Acuff well to this point in his career.

On the evening of March 1, 2014, Acuff’s vision was cloudy.

“I could never really imagine myself winning that match,” Acuff said. “I just couldn’t. It was a weird feeling.”

In the stands at Portland’s Veteran Memorial Coliseum, Roxie Acuff, Justin’s grandmother, felt something amiss as well. Wrestling the 132-pound final at the OSAA Class 3A State Wrestling Championships were two children with different parents and surnames who both called her “Grandma.”

“Horrible, for me. Just really horrible,” Roxie Acuff said. “I knew one of them had to lose. They were so closely matched. You really didn’t know which one it was going to be.”

Carpenter, a longtime Willamina youth wrestling coach and varsity assistant, had developed relationships with both wrestlers. “There was no favorite in that match,” he said, and he meant it in his head and in his heart.

“For me, that was a tough match for being my first year coaching there,” he said. “For them to compete against each other, I don’t think it was something that they envisioned happening.”

Justin Acuff walked onto the mat and eyed his opponent: Willamina’s Coty Brown. Brown, then a senior, and Acuff were virtually inseparable, spending nights in each other’s homes and talking constantly. They shared hobbies beyond wrestling, like jet-skiing at Devil’s Lake in Lincoln City. Brown had won the 3A 126-pound state title in 2013; he was looking to close out his career with two straight state crowns.

Brown is the one who can get through Acuff’s blue eyes, his square, set jaw, his chevron smile, and into the joking and lighthearted personality behind the tough-guy façade other people have erected for Acuff.

“It’s always on my mind,” Brown said of that match. “Sometimes, I even dream about it.”

“I was more worried about our friendship,” Acuff said, “than a state title at that (point).”

No Sheridan wrestler has ever won three state championships. Andy Jordan (157 pounds, 1990-91), Denny Linton (112 pounds, 2007; 130 pounds, 2009) and Acuff (120 pounds, 2012; 132 pounds, 2013) are the only Spartans ever to have claimed individual state titles twice.

Acuff holds the No. 1 seed at 138 pounds for the OSAA Class 3A Wrestling State Championships, held today and tomorrow at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. The No. 2 seed is Dayton’s Jared Henry, the reigning state champion at that weight, whom Acuff defeated by major decision at the Class 3A Special District 2 Championships 138-pound final on Feb. 21. If Acuff wins the 138-pound championship, he will be the 11th wrestler from Yamhill County to claim at least three state titles and the first since Newberg’s Tommy Siciliano won four state championships from 2007 to 2010. “By all means, if he went 138 last year, I think he would have been a four-timer,” Willamina coach Ariah Fasana said.

If a younger Acuff had his druthers, he would be wrestling – and winning – in Willamina black and orange. According to Acuff, his father, Chris, a former heavyweight wrestler for the Spartans, put the kibosh on that sentiment early and often.

“It’s probably one of the stupidest things he’s ever done,” Brown said. “He’s three miles away, he didn’t have a team over there. He would’ve made Willamina’s team so much tougher. It just sucks. It’s like our rival school, and we’re best friends.”

“Obviously, when he was younger, I wanted him over there with that group of kids during that time,” Fasana said. “Once he got to last year, I knew he wasn’t going to.”

Carpenter, a Willamina graduated who was coached by Fasana and longtime Bulldogs assistant Barry Wilson as a senior, took over the Spartans before the 2013-14 season. In 2012-13, Sheridan was notable for fielding a four-person team, sending three wrestlers to districts. This past weekend, Carpenter and assistant coach Alan Dickey brought six wrestlers to districts (more have participated this season), with Justin Acuff and sophomore Remy Tapia-Bravo (106 pounds) qualifying for state.

“It really never was an option for Justin to go to Willamina,” Carpenter said. “Would people have loved to have him at Willamina? Would I have loved to have him at Willamina? Two years ago, I was coaching at Willamina. Yes.”

In addition to his work with the Spartans, Acuff competes with the Corvallis-based club Orange Crush, led by John Rich. (Rich’s son, Alex, a senior at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, is vying for his fourth individual state title this weekend in the Class 5A 132-pound bracket.) Acuff’s wrestling upbringing is unique in that Sheridan and Willamina youth programs each have significant influences.

Acuff began wrestling at age 5 in Sheridan’s Top Gun youth program. The program stood on rocky footing and eventually folded – Carpenter has revitalized it since taking over the Spartans – so Acuff left to join Willamina’s Little Guy program. As Roxie Acuff tells it, Justin showed up for his first Little Guy practice wearing a Top Gun T-shirt. By the end of the season, he had cast the shirt aside.

Acuff is an example of the Sheridan-Willamina rivalry at present. Separated by a five-mile strip of rutted highway, the two towns occasionally harbor enmity, but amity – not that Amity – has trumped it.

“(Sheridan football assistant) Coach (Al) Ashcroft and (head coach) Brice (Ingram) told us stories. Back then, they used to go over to each other’s places and trash them,” said Sheridan senior Andrew Glynn, a football teammate and friend of Acuff’s. “Now, it’s a little more laid-back. But when we play against each other, it’s more amped. That’s still there. Not necessarily the anger is there.

“We both love (Acuff). Both schools.”

In the Sheridan mat room, Acuff’s best practice partners – the ones who challenge him – are Carpenter and Dickey. Acuff contributes to the Spartans as a team in the practice room; Tapia-Bravo credits his time on the mat with Acuff with his progression into a state competitor after two years of wrestling experience.

“I personally feel motivated to try to be as good as he is,” Tapia-Bravo said. “He pushes himself a lot. I feel like he’s really motivated to get after it, to be the best.”

Acuff has played running back and linebacker for the Spartans’ football team, his natural understanding of leverage and body control leading him to excel on the field. He is considering playing baseball for Sheridan in the spring. Glynn and Acuff’s other prospective teammates convinced him to play summer-league baseball, Acuff’s first such action since elementary school.

“His first couple of at-bats, he hit a triple and he almost hit a home run,” Glynn said. “I was like, wow.”

Brown: “He takes me down within the first 20 seconds and I was like, crap. We’re fighting back, I get away.”

Acuff: “One of the most … weirdest feelings I’ve ever had. I didn’t wrestle to my potential at all. Staring off into the crowd….it felt like I wasn’t there. Didn’t feel real. Didn’t feel right.”

Brown: “The ref gave me a takedown in a big scramble that probably shouldn’t have been. He gets away, 3-3. He goes down (in the next period), gets away. I get a takedown, 5-4.”

Acuff: “I can usually cut out everybody in a match and not listen to anyone. Listen to my own thinking, my own process. I could hear everybody else but myself thinking. I wasn’t even paying attention.”

Brown: “I’m up 6-5 late in the third. He has to score. I don’t know what I was doing. I should’ve backed away to keep the win but I was attacking still, like I was losing. I hit a move at the perfect time – got a takedown off it. It was a move I’d been saving, just in case.”

Roxie Acuff: “I was rooting for Justin but I didn’t want Coty to have to lose, either. It was bittersweet. Bitter, bitter, bitter.”

Brown: “That was like the one time I ever seen him quit. I got there and he just laid there. I was watching the clocking and I felt like time was going down forever. Years going by.”

Justin Acuff: ““It was like, oh well, I lost. I’ll come back next year. It relieved a lot of pressure off me. I think about it a lot. Like, darn it. (I wanted to) win four state titles. Not many people win three. It’s kind of sad. (I was) kind of mopey for a while. It didn’t hit me for a bit.”

Brown: “After that, we laid on the mat. We were just looking at each other and both just looking at each other and be like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ One of us could’ve gone a weight up and then we both could’ve won a state title.”

Acuff: “I don’t really like high school wrestling. It’s too politicky. It’s like, everyone wants this and that and that. You get kids that want to go this weight and that weight, running from some other kid. Me, I’ve had a lot of kids that don’t want to wrestle me. They try to trick you by lying to you, say they’re doing this and they’r e really doing that. It’s really frustrating. My opinion is, if you want to get better, you should wrestle the best kids in the state.”

Brown: “It wasn’t even exciting. I was more pissed off than everything else. Like, I cared about winning state, but it wasn’t even worth that.”

Acuff: “We were still friends afterwards. He was nice about it. He wasn’t cocky, he wasn’t arrogant,” Acuff recalled. “What I liked about it was, he made sure I was okay after I lost. ‘Are you okay, man?’ ‘Yup, yup.’”

Brown: “I think he felt that he didn’t want to be there. Nobody wanted to be there. He and I were talking about it a couple weeks later. I was like, ‘Did that feel like a blur, like a dream? He was like, ‘Yeah, it didn’t feel like it was real.’

“Shouldn’t have happened. Should’ve never happened. By the time we thought about it, it was too late.”

Acuff: “As time has gone on, you just realize – it made me a better wrestler, that’s for sure. I felt like I let down a lot of people, but really, I didn’t. No one thought of me less.”

Carpenter: “Their friendship made it through. And that’s the cool thing. They may seem like enemies when they’re on the mat and when they’re out there battling for six minutes they’re going to be enemies. After, five years from now, they’re going to be friends.”

Roxie Acuff: “I’m not sure he’s completely over it. It’s not something he talks about. It took him, probably, maybe as much as six months before he would even watch the video of the match. Sometimes he’s not even off the mat yet (before watching the video).”

Justin Acuff: “I took a long break after that. I got back into it the last three weeks of football season. Now I’m here.”

Acuff has a physical advantage right out of the box against younger wrestlers: he is left-handed and leads with his left leg, an unorthodox stance to most.

Where Acuff stands out, what has vaulted him into the national levels of the sport, is his mental approach. To many, six minutes with Acuff on the mat feels like 60.

“He doesn’t quit,” Brown said. “Not an ounce of quit in him at all. You try to break him and you can’t break him. Even if you’re down by a lot of points, he still won’t give up.”

“He’s really calm,” Fasana said. “He doesn’t get overhyped or hyped out of a match. He understands wrestling. He’s not going to get desperate. When kids get like that, they make mistakes.”

For all that Acuff has been or Acuff has done, he has improved. He is content to ride an opponent on the mat for whole rounds, but Carpenter has worked to improve Acuff’s intensity.

“You can wrestle like as a chess match, like it’s strategic, or you can wrestle like it’s a combat sport,” Carpenter said. “He’s always had the moves, but if you’ve watched him wrestle throughout the years he was always calm and passive.”

“I get burned out sometimes,” Acuff admitted. “If I wrestle for six months – right about now, I’m ready for it to be over, but I don’t want it to be. You’ve just got to finish strong.”

Wrestling, for Acuff, is a six-day-a-week vocation in the heart of the season. He is far from done with the sport – Acuff has drawn interest from colleges, particularly Southern Oregon University.

For all the top-tier tournaments in his past and in his future, there is still nothing like the state tournament, for all that it has provided him.

“It’s just something I expect to do during the year,” Acuff said. “It’s been my goal every year. Got to get the third one.”



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