OTTUMWA — Eric Griffiths can still recall what it was like competing inside the Ottumwa High School gymnasium as a member of the Bulldog wrestling team.
Griffiths, now an Ottumwa High School wrestling assistant coach and coach of the Ottumwa Alpha Dogs youth program, graduated OHS in 1997. Before doing so, Griffiths wrestled many matches inside the wood gym, providing an atmosphere like none other.
"We used to pack this house," Griffiths recalled. "I remember one time we had a dual with Centerville and Central Decatur here. It was standing room only all around the top of the gym. We had the wooden bleachers pulled out. Those were full. The stands up top were full. It was an incredible atmosphere to wrestle in."
Some of those memories came flooding back for longtime fans of Ottumwa wrestling on Tuesday as the Bulldogs competed for the first time in over 15 years inside the wood gym. Fans filled the five rows of stands that looked down on the mat while many more fans watched from the small indoor track that runs above the floor of the hallowed facilities where OHS and other Ottumwa youth teams still use for practice throughout the course of the year.
Fans also filed into the three rows of metal bleachers that were set up on the floor level of the gymnasium. The evening also included the introduction of the current Ottumwa youth wrestlers, who received signed posters from the current Ottumwa Bulldog High School wrestlers after the dual.
For Griffiths and Ottumwa High School wrestling coach Jeremy Frueh, it was a night of nostalgia. Like Griffiths, Frueh also wrestled at Ottumwa and competed inside the wood gym before graduating in 2000.
"There are huge memories that I have and so does Jeremy of wrestling in this gymnasium," Griffiths said. "It was something that we wanted to bring back into our wrestling culture and generate some motivation for our kids moving forward."
Frueh took over as head coach of the Ottumwa High School wrestling program in 2013. Ever since, Frueh has asked each year for the opportunity to host a meet once again inside the wood gym.
Finally, due to a scheduling conflict that saw Evans Middle School Gymnasium being used Tuesday for a girls and boys basketball doubleheader with Lincoln, Frueh got his wish.
"I'd been asking for several years, so the first thing that I heard from (athletic director Scott Maas) is that I was going to be happy because they needed a place to host both the wrestling and basketball games," Frueh said. "He asked me if we could host it at the high school. I told him we'd do it."
Frueh would love for Tuesday night to truly be the start of restoring an OHS wrestling tradition by making the high school gym the home for several more Bulldog wrestling duals in the future. Despite the close quarters, Tuesday's dual went off without much of a hitch, save for the 52-22 loss suffered on the mat to the Railsplitters.
"We end up hauling a lot of stuff over the Evans Gym for meets anyway. Our scales are here and we've got the clock situation figured out," Frueh said. "The only thing we had to haul over here was the mat, which is our competition mat that we can probably keep over here. I'd like this to be much more of a permanent situation.
Frueh acknowledge there could be some obstacles to regularly hosting high school wrestling duals at the OHS gym. Parking, for one, was somewhat limited outside the main entrance to the OHS wood and rubber gyms.
"I know that parking is something of an obstacle, but we had a lot more people here for youth wrestling night. We wouldn't have that every time we'd host a dual," Frueh said. "I know that (Maas) wanted to see how it all went. If everything went well, I think it's definitely a possibility that we'll get to host more duals here in the future."
Griffiths is just as hopeful as Frueh that OHS wrestling will once again begin to call the wood gym home. The Alpha Dogs head coach asked his youth wrestlers to imagine what it would be like to compete the environment that brought back to life on Tuesday.
"I talked to a couple of them that I have really big plans with. I asked them if they'd like to someday have their walkout song playing as they stepped out here into the spotlight on the mat in this gym with this many people packed in here," Griffiths said. "They're eyes got really big. I think we've got them sold on it."