By AJ MAZZOLINI
HERMISTON — Parked behind a desk in his office on the second floor of Hermiston High School last week, Curt Berger spent the afternoon hours grading papers from his computer-aided drafting class. Light music and pen scratching filled the audible space.
The empty weight room just down the stairs and the equally vacant padded wrestling room around the corner were silent. With the Hermiston wrestling season wrapped up the weekend before, none of this was out of the ordinary for Berger for the first school days in March.
But when fall comes again, his hands will remain grading rather than grappling for the first time in decades.
The time felt right for change at Hermiston, the 49-year old Stayton native said. His love for the sport has never wavered; it’s the little things about running a program as feared state-wide as it is respected that he’s looking to leave behind.
“Twenty-one years is a long time. I’m tired of all the other things that go along with coaching other than coaching,” Berger said. “I’m tired of skin checks and weigh-ins and weight carves and riding on buses.”
This is a move Berger expected to make sooner. After last season, retirement felt prime with his son Curtis Jr. — the lone son of Berger’s four children with wife Roxane — set to graduate. Curtis Jr. had just won his third straight state wrestling title under his father, helping the Dawgs earn their fifth straight as a team.
But another special Hermiston wrestler was wreaking havoc on the state scene. A junior named Joey Delgado dominated his weight classes through three years, earning three state titles.
One more year, Berger decided, to help guide Delgado to a four-peat.
The first four-time champ in school history was worth it.
“I’m really blessed to have him stay for another year with me,” said Delgado, who on Feb. 25 completed his fourth championship. “I wouldn’t have wanted to finish my senior year with any other coach.
“He knows how to work hard and he’s taught me how to work hard. That mental toughness, that’s the main thing I’ve learned from Coach Berger.”
Lessons on the mat
Berger’s journey to Hermiston legend started on the mats as a 5-year old. He and twin brother Cliff picked up wresting together, the perfect sport for small guys like themselves where size isn’t a factor. Berger won a pair of high school state titles of his at Crook County after the family moved to Prineville.
At Oregon State over the next few years — where Berger won a Pac-10 Conference wresting championship and All-American honors as a pistol shooter — he earned a double-major in agricultural education and industrial arts. Even then, a young Berger knew he wanted to coach. He even switched his focus to industrial arts for his teaching career instead of agriculture to free up more time after school for practices.
“That way, when school ends and I could go coach,” Berger said, “like a normal guy would do.”
Berger took a job teaching industrial arts at Hermiston and coaching wrestling in 1992 after a few years as an assistant elsewhere.
Hermiston was one of several openings he considered, but a chance to move back east after living in the rain-soaked Western Oregon sold the family. He and his wife had met while living in Prineville.
“We were a little nervous when we came out of the valley toward Hermiston. My wife thought maybe the (Umatilla) Chemical Depot had already blown up,” Berger joked. “You come out of the flat there and it’s just brown.”
In the years since, Berger has tried to give everything he can back to the sport of wrestling and to the kids he encounters in the classroom.
He’s a believer in true accountability — on and off the mat.
“We’re trying to teach kids life lessons, not just to win at wrestling,” he said. “And the lesson is whatever you say you’re going to do, you do it.”
A wrestler by trade, Berger also tried his hand at tennis for several years starting as the Bulldogs’ JV coach. With daughters Rachel, Rebecca and Richole all immersed in the sport, dad jumped in with the enthusiasm of a cannonball kid at a pool.
On his first day, he watched the varsity practice and tried to emulate what he saw from the players and coaches. Never the kind to meander through tasks, the wrestling coach who was trying to teach tennis studied up, watching video, learning the game and attending clinics.
“For the first seven or 10 years, I was the most improved player on the team,” Berger said over a chuckle. “I joke that all the time we were tough at tennis because we knew how to train, that it had nothing to do with tennis. We beat them just because of the dedication to the sport and the mental toughness.”
That sounds like one of the many Berger proverbs, said Orlando Perez, an assistant coach for the Bulldog wrestlers since 2007. Perez has shared the sideline with Berger for six years, but also took in some of the coach’s wisdom as a student. Perez was part of Hermiston’s first title in 2001, a senior that year while winning an individual state championship.
“He’s very inspiring,” Perez said. “(Because of him), I know what it takes to take guys to the next level. I was taught by him and am still being taught by him, I guess.
“It’s going to be kind of weird for me to step into that (wrestling) room and not have Curt there.”
Berger has said the fingerprints of his assistant coaches are all over the wrestling team as it grew into dynasty territory. With almost every one of them he could “leave the room and they could run the program.”
Now Hermiston is forced to live with that as a reality. The process is under way to find a replacement for the most decorated coach in Hermiston history. After 44 years of wrestling, asking Berger to stop breathing would be simpler than asking him to step away from the sport entirely and he said he’ll still be around to help if needed. He still works out twice a day, so there are plenty of miles left in his engine.
He’s excited to try and fill the free time without sports in the fall — Berger hasn’t coached tennis since 2009 after his youngest daughter graduated. All three attended college on tennis scholarships. The man that brought Hermiston individual wrestling gold 33 times hasn’t decided what new venture to pursue next, though.
“Wrestling was kind of during bird season, so maybe I’ll hunt during the week,” Berger said.
But whatever missions make themselves worthy of the coach’s attention, the safe bet would be on Berger jumping in head first.