Cougar wrestling sets sights on becoming official sport

Club looks to become university sport for first time since 1986


OLIVER McKENNA | The Daily Evergreen

Two Cougar athletes battle during the Crimson vs. Gray Wrestling match held at the Student Recreation Center on Oct. 27.

RYAN MOSHER, Evergreen reporter

WSU wrestling has been a club sport since 2012, but the team is working to reclaim its place as an official university sport.

“We’re going to just try to keep moving up the ranks, trying to be a varsity sport next,” wrestling coach Phil Burnett said.

The wrestling team had its first full year of competition in the 2013-2014 season as part of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association Northwest Conference. In 2015, the team became two-time conference champions and NCWA Division II national champions. The club was promoted to Division I after that season.

While the team was preparing to travel to nationals last year, Head Coach Kevin Poitra was unable to fly to nationals after having a splint put on his leg. Burnett, a friend of club President Hunter Haney, agreed to go with the team and coach them during nationals.

Burnett now coaches with the team full-time, and said he is working hard to make the club a varsity sport.

“Last year at nationals the guys inspired me,” he said. “The family commitment, the comradery of the team and how they all look out for each other — it was kind of a special thing.”

Burnett lives in Auburn with his wife, but during the week he spends his time in Pullman coaching the team. Burnett estimated that he has driven 4,235 miles and spent 105 hours in his car commuting between his home and WSU.

Burnett said the team could become an official sport soon, and when it does he plans to move to Pullman full time.

“When coach Kevin invited me to help out as much as I could, he probably had no idea that I was in a financial position to commit as much as I have,” Burnett said. “So here I am.”

Burnett met Haney through the gym he operates in his house to train high school wrestlers, mainly from Enumclaw High School. Burnett said WSU wrestlers take advantage of the gym during breaks.

Haney said Burnett helped him hone his craft and become a better wrestler.

“When I wrestled for Enumclaw, he tried to work with me my junior year of high school, but I never really took it seriously,” Haney said. “After being ranked second in the state and losing at state I approached him and said ‘next year, please coach me,’ and all my senior year I worked with him, and he really got me to that next level where I was able to become a state champion.”

Burnett said he has been expanding membership and fundraising for the club. The club has a men’s and women’s teams. The men’s team has over 30 members and the women’s has six. Some of the men come from other WSU campuses like Tri-Cities.

The WSU wrestling club has a few members on the team ranked nationally this year, including Haney, who is ranked No. 2 at the 133 pounds weight class. Zack Volk is ranked No. 2 at 165 pounds, and Tucker Hanson is No. 12 at 184 pounds.

Besides the six wrestlers who have joined since this season started, Burnett said six high school wrestlers have committed to join the club next season, three of whom are from out of state.

The team has set a $33,000 goal for the season’s fundraising to pay for travel and equipment. Burnett said he raised about $8,000 on his own through donations, including some from parents of Enumclaw High School students and from his chiropractor.

Another part of Burnett’s plan is to grow the reputation of Cougar wrestling. The team competes against many universities that have recognized wrestling as an official sport in tournaments. However, the club has had difficulty finding teams willing to travel to Pullman for a dual.

“North Idaho is right up the road,” Burnett said, “but they don’t see us as legit yet, even though on Sunday [at the Mike Clock Open tournament] we had three of our guys wrestle their guys head to head and just battle them right down to the wire.

“We’re going to have to make some noise nationally before teams like that wake up and realize ‘we can go down here to Pullman and get a good workout.’ ”

WSU wrestling will have one dual in Pullman this year at 7 p.m. Jan. 12 in the Student Recreation Center against Montana Tech.