by nathan oster
Mark Sanford has resigned as the head coach of the Greybull-Riverside wrestling program, stepping down after 20 seasons in Greybull and 31 in all as a high school wrestling coach in Wyoming.
His resignation was accepted at the March 12 meeting of the Big Horn County School District No. 3’s board of trustees.
“I actually made the decision last year, knowing that (my oldest daughter) Grace was going to be a freshman and that in a couple short years, she’d be gone,” he said. “I thought I had it all lined up, but then the two people (who I hoped would take over the program) left our district.”
With no one in line to step in for him, Sanford decided to stay on for one more year. But he told the administration last spring — and his wrestlers at the beginning of this season — that this, his 20th season in Greybull, would be his last.
Fast forward to night of Saturday, Feb. 27. The wrestlers were on their way home from Casper. Nathaniel Boreen had just won the state title — the 22nd champ of Sanford’s career — and Greybull-Riverside had just placed 10th as a team in the 2A division.
No longer concerned about having to make weight or the next week’s tournament, each wrestler was working on putting away his own large pizza, a longtime G-R tradition for the ride home from Casper.
The mood was celebratory.
They’d reached the end of the season.
“I told them all that night that if I didn’t have a family, I’d keep doing this until the day I die,” recalled Sanford. “I just love what it does for young men. Wrestling challenges you to discipline yourself. Obstacles get put in your way and you need to figure out how to overcome them. Along the way, you learn a lot about yourself.”
Sanford will never forget his coaching debut and laughs about it to this day. It was at Saratoga High School. Fresh out of college, he was taking over a fledgling program that was lacking experienced kids and a winning tradition. Their opponent was the Laramie ninth-grade team. Just one problem: Saratoga’s AD hadn’t lined up an official. So Sanford got pressed into duty.
“I had to officiate the first matches that I ever coached,” he said, chuckling. “I was so nervous and scared, but I was out there. I kept wanting to yell, ‘Put a half on!’ The kid was right there in front of me. But as the official, I couldn’t do that.”
Sanford would more than make up for that silence over the next 31 years.
The highlight of his career came in 2010, when G-R captured the 2A state title.
“That was a fun group of kids,” he said. “You chase that thing as a coach. We really should have probably had four of them while I was here.”
G-R had strong teams in 2003-04 and 2004-05, but came up short in Casper each time. The 2003-04 team finished second, just 1.5 points behind Cokeville. Zack Dalin, Everett Doss, Alex Patterson, Brandon Deadman and Grant Royal were the leaders of that squad.
The core of that team returned for the 2004-05 season, but it, too, faltered. Sanford said one of the top returnees that year opted not to go out and that another was kicked off the team a week before regionals.
“Both of them had been state placers the year before,” he said. “We took fourth that year, but were just 10 points out of first. If either of those two would have placed, that would have given us a 15- or 20-point scorer.”
The two near misses made 2010 all the sweeter. The Buffs used a team effort, getting points from wrestlers in every weight class but one, to capture their first team title since 1994 and end Cokeville’s four-year stranglehold on the division.
G-R took 17 wrestlers to state that year — the most in 2A — and left with 11 placers, including a state champion in 189-pounder Bob Anderson and four others, Nate Gossens, Chayce Goton, Clay Cundall and Wes Ridgway, who lost in the finals and finished second. Levi Kelly, Nathan Hetzel, Matt Grovenstein, Luke Zeller, Payton Vigil and Ben Anson also placed that year.
“That was a team where a lot of them had gone through our program together,” said Sanford. “Even when they were little, they were a competitive bunch. That had the right mindset.”
While it was a little thing at the time, Levi Kelly had set the tone the previous summer, telling Sanford that he was “going to wrestle at 103 pounds” — far below his natural weight, but at a weight where G-R would have otherwise been open — and “we are going to win the state title.”
Kelly and his teammates did just that.
G-R was poised to make another run at the title in 2010-11, but the season was derailed over the holiday break when Wes Ridgway, the team’s heavyweight, vocal leader and team captain, took his life on New Year’s Eve.
“Without a doubt, the toughest year of my coaching career,” said Sanford.
In their second-to-last outing of December, G-R went to a tournament in Forsyth, Mont., where they battled the hosts and Glendive, who were among the top teams in Montana that year. G-R was right with them heading into the second day, with just eight points separating the three.
A couple of breaks didn’t go G-R’s way and the team ended up finishing third.
Nate Gossens lost in controversial fashion in the finals. So, too, did Ridgway. His match had gone into overtime, tied at 1 apiece. It ended in a loss on a “fleeting the mat” call that left Sanford, normally not one to question the officials, “totally flabbergasted.”
Sanford walked off the mat a frustrated coach. So, too, did Gossens, who kept telling Ridgway that he’d wrestled a great match and been ripped off by the official’s call. Wes, however, took it in stride.
“I was in front of them and I’ll never forget how Wes handled it,” said Sanford. “He told Nate, ‘Hey, Coach always says don’t leave it up to the official. There were things I could have done better. But I came here to wrestle, have fun, work hard and do my best — and I did that. I met my goals for this weekend.’
“Looking back at it all, it’s just one of those things you don’t understand. The mindset of that kid and what he was doing in wrestling that day, it was just perfect.”
The rest of the season was a struggle, as Sanford recalled the somber, going-through-the-motions feel of the team’s first practice after Ridgway’s death, tears being shed at the end of that workout and showing up very flat for the Big Horn County Dual Championships a few days later.
They were missing their teammate.
“Wes was our mouthpiece, big, motivated, a man on the mat,” said Sanford.
G-R wrestled well enough to beat Rocky Mountain, but “well enough” wasn’t going to be good enough against Lovell. The team found itself down 10 points heading into the final two matches of the dual. To win, Ben Anson and Nate Hetzel needed pins.
With a spirit that would have made Ridgway proud, they came through. Hetzel wrestled like a man possessed that day, Sanford said, calling it a turning point in the season.
“We decided right then, we have to move forward and we have to do it as a team.”
G-R went on to place second that year, losing to Cokeville, 209-179.5. Gossens won the team’s only state championship.
Sanford coached 22 state champions during his 31-year career, and while he’s proud of each of them and what they accomplished, he holds the ones who didn’t get it done and lost in excruciating fashion every bit as close to his heart.
“Those are the matches you linger on … the ones that got away,” he said.
Cole Hill might be G-R’s most accomplished wrestler to never win a state title. He was a four-time state placer and two-time runner-up in Casper. His final match was a brutal one against Thatcher Speiring of Saratoga that ended in an overtime loss, with a bloodied Hill leaving everything on the mat.
The match still haunts Sanford. So, too, do the matches that Chayse Goton and Alex Patterson lost in Casper. But Sanford celebrates the happy endings, too. Luis Burgos produced one of them a few years back, upsetting the heavy favorite in the semifinals, then beating a Cokeville kid for the title.
Now that he’s stepped aside, Sanford will be trading his whistle for a bleacher seat. Daughter Grace will be a sophomore next year and daughter Torrie a freshman. Both are active in sports, playing volleyball, basketball and track. Sanford said he looks forward to just being a dad, going to their home and away games and watching them grow up.
He’s not getting out of wrestling completely. His son, Bennett, wrestles USA and will soon be going into the middle school. Mark plans to continue as the president of the Greybull-Basin Athletic Club. But one thing he won’t do is cast a shadow over his successor.
When Sanford arrived in Greybull, he took over for “a legend” in Tom Urbach, who in his 18 years led nine teams to state titles and 32 wrestlers to individual glory. Sanford didn’t understand why at the time, but Urbach didn’t come around practice very often, unless he was asked to do so. Urbach would later tell Sanford that he stayed away because it needed to be Sanford’s program. “He said, ‘Well, that’s just what you need to do’ and ‘When the time comes, you will do it, too.'” Sanford said he’s going to approach the transition the same way.
Sanford said his first year in Greybull was a difficult one, as several kids quit early in the season. A conversation with his wife, Heather, who has been at his side from day one, helped him through it. “It was trying to be hard-nosed and tough,” he said. “She just told me, ‘You have to be yourself.'” Sanford got through that season — and 19 more. He leaves with the program on the upswing, poised for more success next season with a solid nucleus returning. He won’t be on the mat with them, but you can bet he won’t be far away from his favorite sport.