An undeniable fact about the cost of higher education is that it is increasing. With a limited number of scholarships available for wrestlers, there can be a point where the dream of wrestling in college meets the harsh financial realities of paying for tuition. Call them Junior Colleges or Community Colleges, but these schools provide an affordable opportunity for student-athletes to not only receive a degree but continue on with their athletic careers. Beyond this, students can also transfer to a four-year institution at any point with college credits completed while having eligibility left to compete.
Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington serves as an affordable college opportunity for wrestlers on the West Coast. The state of Washington offers next to no college wrestling opportunities and for wrestlers who would like to stay close to home, Highline is the only option. Tuition costs $4,000 a year ($4,400 out-of-state) and athletes can graduate with an associates degree in two years. Want to continue on towards a bachelor’s degree at another institution? Head Coach Scott Norton has run the program since 2003 and is happy to help his wrestlers find a home after Highline.
Frankly, after reaching out and speaking to Coach Norton I firmly believe that any program at any level would benefit from having someone like him as part of the program. Highline Community College fields a competitive NJCAA program not only on the mat but in the classroom as well. Bucking the stigma attached to community college athletes, Highline has been Academic National Champions three times including back-to-back in 2014 & 2015. A Division I All-American during his time at Oregon, Coach Norton is one of only six Ducks to join the Century Club (100 Wins). He manages to coach, recruit, mentor, and administrate the Highline wrestling program while holding down full-time employment as a fifth-grade teacher. His commitment to his program, his athletes, and to the sport of wrestling in Washington is a shining example of unselfishness.
There is no doubt that the West Coast produces talented high school wrestlers and that Washington state can produce division one level competitors, but there is nearly zero opportunity for them to continue on close to home. That is why I felt it was important to reach out to a Washington program doing all it can to not only maintain but expand their foothold. It was time for Highline Community College to come out from Under The Radar and so we sent Head Coach Scott Norton a few questions.
Coach Scott Norton, over the last 14 years you have been very successful at Highline Community College. What went into the decision after the season was over to return and continue building your legacy in Western Washington?
There are a few reasons that brought me back to Highline at the end of this year. The first was we met with our team after the national tournament and told them that I would be stepping down and it was not well received. I could see that my athletes understood because I have three young boys. At the same time, I also sensed as though they felt a little hurt and abandoned. Our coaches develop pretty close relationships with these kids in a short amount of time and I could see they were bothered by the decision. The last thing I ever want to do is have one of my athletes feel that way. So the plan is to stay for two years and turn the program over to the next coach.
There were also quite a few rumors floating around about the uncertainty of the program and whether it would be intact in the future. However, we have an athletic director that has always supported the program since I have been there and we sat down and talked about a plan for the next two years.
Last, I had a friend reach out to me and see if I would stay on for two more years. His name is Brad Swartz. He is planning on building a Regional Training Center that can help support the Highline College Wrestling Program.
You have coached some outstanding individuals over the years, but is it difficult knowing you only have them for a short period of time before losing them?
I think it’s incredibly difficult knowing that you only have the wrestlers for two years. I have developed some really good relationships with these kids and then you blink and they’re gone. Our 141 pounder, Andrew Ramirez, is a great example. We have a great relationship but it’s time for him to move on to a four-year college. You really don’t have much time to develop the wrestlers so whatever skills they have when they come in you just want to add to them and refine their technique as much as possible. It goes quick.
Oftentimes there is a stigma associated with community college wrestlers that they are there because they cannot get into four-year programs or are not skilled enough wrestlers. Is it frustrating to hear that type of commentary knowing the type of student athletes you see pass through your program that buck that stereotype?
I think people need to be enlightened a little bit when it comes to Junior College athletes. No question, there is some talent in JC. I feel like most of the better JC kids can wrestle at the higher divisions and sometimes D-1. As far as not being able to go elsewhere due to grades, that isn’t always the case either. We currently have a wrestler who has a 4.0 through the first year of college and was chosen as the Highline Scholar Athlete. Our program in particular targets wrestlers that are strong students academically and good wrestlers. Last, more and more students are seeking out JC’s because you can complete two years of college for a cheaper amount than attending one year of a four-year college. So to answer your question it can be very irritating when junior college kids are stereotyped.
Your program won back to back Academic National Championships in 2014 and 2015 becoming the first program to accomplish that feat. How much of a sense of pride does that bring to you?
I think it’s a pretty big deal. It shows that our college and program have a tremendous commitment towards education. We have actually canceled meets and pulled out of tournaments because we didn’t feel our team was where they were supposed to be academically. I am an educator myself. I have taught 5th grade since 2000 and the entire time I have been coaching at Highline. Technically, I have pretty much had two full-time jobs for 15 years. I’m sure my academic expectations have rubbed off on our teams. We also communicate to our team the importance of going to class daily and doing well in school. I am very proud of what our team has achieved academically.
The West Coast has an incredible amount of high school talent that is often overlooked by the “experts” out east. In Washington, there are no NCAA sanctioned programs. How important of a role do Junior Colleges, NWCA clubs, and NAIA programs play in providing opportunities for talented athletes to stay closer to home?
I think the lack of NCAA sanctioned programs on the West Coast is a complete nightmare. Most people seem to think that it’s OK, especially in Washington. However, I think the quality of wrestling is going down significantly. There are less and less kids from the West Coast going to higher levels of wrestling with the exception of California and a few wrestlers out of Oregon. What seems to be happening is more and more wrestlers leave the West Coast to wrestle in college, but most kids try to go to big programs when they don’t have the skill set to be there and you never hear from them again.
Your roster was almost entirely made up of West Coast student athletes with the exceptions of David Jenkins (Idaho) and Ben Carillo (Pennsylvania). Is that a matter of constraints put on your recruiting budget or simply because as a community college you are often competing against other programs close to home for athletes? How do you go about presenting the chance to wrestle for Highline to athletes that fit your program?
We simply have not had the budget to recruit outside the state. Our entire budget can only fund 60% of one full scholarship. (tuition, room, and board.) So when we go outside the state we cannot offer housing and full tuition. It’s pretty challenging. Highline is basically a commuter college. When I find the type of athlete we want, I usually try to emphasize that they will move to a four-year school and complete their AA at the same time. I also remind them that they have an opportunity to be a part of a program that develops great wrestlers. I’ve taken many kids in Washington that were third or fourth in state and turned them into All-Americans. Last, there are not many junior colleges that have a Division I coach. That is also something that draws them to our program.
With the rise of social media do you find that utilizing things like Twitter and Facebook has allowed you to expand your reach outside of western Washington? Does Highline allow you to live stream home events so that families can watch their sons wrestle when they are not able to attend duals?
I think the age of media has really helped reach athletes. We often run into coaches that do not check their email in the spring or think their kid is going D1. So we have to go through Facebook or Twitter to get a hold of the kids. Highline does Livestream their matches. However, it doesn’t seem like every match makes it on Livestream. Most parents just show up to the meet.
You have had wrestlers go on to compete at four-year institutions and be very successful. How do help your athletes target a program to move on to after their time with you?
We have had a few wrestlers do pretty well after moving on to four-year colleges. I try to stay very involved in the process as my athletes move to a four-year school. Usually, we try to map out the schools they are interested in at the beginning of their sophomore year and we contact the college to see what kinds of transfer requirements are required. We also try to put our wrestlers name in future coaches’ ears so they can follow our wrestler to see if they could be a potential fit for their program.
Unfortunately, at the end of our season a lot of times coaches just look up the rankings and start calling about our wrestlers. Some coaches have never even seen them wrestle and don’t know what they look like. I try to send our wrestlers to coaches that have done their homework and have our wrestler’s best interest at heart, not how many matches they can win for their team.
Regarding junior college, I don’t think it’s too difficult to put a national championship team together. The big thing it takes is money and good recruiting. Junior college is kind of the rich versus the poor. You have non-scholarship schools competing against schools with 20 full scholarships. When you look inside the top 10 in the NJCAA most programs have 20 full scholarships. I think the NJCAA should follow the same protocol as D-1 9.9 or 10 Scholarships, 20 seems ridiculous.
You will be returning national qualifiers and one All-American in heavyweight Miguel Morales, who else is a must watch for wrestling fans this coming season? Do community college programs have a more difficult time building a national championship level team with such a small window to build?
We do have Miguel Morales returning who was an All-American last year. However, we’re hoping he can move closer towards that national title. We do have returning national qualifiers; however, they could be hard pressed to make the team with the recruiting class that I’m bringing in. I would keep an eye on Liam Corbett at 157, Mario Luevano, Mitchell Owen both are at 184, Emmanuel Daigbe 197, and Shandon Ilaban who could be 125 or 133. These are the six that I’m expecting to set the standard. Hopefully, we will have a couple other wrestlers step up.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions Coach Norton. Leave us with some final thoughts you have about why Highline Community College may be a good fit for a student athlete looking to continue on with their wrestling career and how they can go about reaching out to you and the program.
I would encourage wrestlers to come to our program because we have a vested interest in their well-being beyond junior college. We are here to support our athletes and help them transfer to a four-year school. We don’t just help the best wrestlers, we try to help all wrestlers. If you come to Highline you will be leaving our college with that Associate’s Degree and become an All-American or national champ if you buy into the system we have developed. Last, we also work closely with families to help assist with the transfer process. Almost every wrestler that comes through our program is pretty happy with their experience when it ends. Future wrestlers can reach me by email firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message on our Facebook page under Highline Wrestling.