For anyone who has ever set foot in Gering, it is a remote town in many instances overshadowed by its neighbor Scottsbluff, except perhaps in one extraordinary way. Well, surely there are other ways Gering stands out, but for nearly three decades in the west Nebraska burg, wrestling was king.
And residents could stake claim to being on the greener side of the North Platte River.
There was one man ever present behind the chairs that lined the mat come dual or tournament. On those occasions, not a bleacher seat at Gering High School was ever empty. Deafening cheers could be heard well beyond the gym on icy winter nights.
Anyone who wrestled for Coach Chuck Deter was a name. Our Bulldogs donned familiar blue and gold warm-ups came into the gym and circled the mat in perfect stride. Opponents who watched this spectacle groaned losses as a foregone conclusion, as many old foes will tell you. Gering was the stuff of legend. They watched our drills and stretches, and pointed to familiar faces — Huckfeldt, Christian, Block, Reyes, Berger, Salazar, Mejia, and Ybarra, and scores of others that seemed a cutout of the wrestler before him as undefeated seasons and titles blended.
Though not a star on varsity, I too wrestled for Coach Deter, and to this day count him as one of my greatest influences because of the way he cared for everyone on the team. In fact, even his reserves could have beaten the varsity squads of most other neighboring high schools. He was such a face in my past that I heard his voice come out in me when I took the job of reviving a wrestling program at Western High School in Las Vegas, a few years back.
His reason for coming to Gering in 1967 was simple. He’ll tell you he was attracted to the area and the quality of the school system. Gering’s wrestling program was on the rise, and he wanted to take on the challenge to improve it.
With no real pedigree in wrestling, he fell into the sport’s lap happenstance. In 1962, he began coaching the high school football team in Manzanola, Colo. The school was interested in starting a wrestling program and tapped him for the assignment. He began with no experience wrestling, nor had he coached the sport up to this point.
Deter, however, made an impact during his six-year stint at Manzanola. In his first dual of the first season, he watched his team take on Fowler High School. “I was amazed that we were able to pull together a team in just a few weeks and get on the mat against a school representing the next higher class,” he said. During his tenure, two of his teams went on to earn district tournament titles.
After Deter joined Gering, his success continued though he remained humble. His teams made 13 other appearances in Lincoln, and seven times were runner-up, and overall finished in the top-five 20 times. His teams also hold national records for a 106-match dual winning streak, and 96 tournament championships. For his accomplishments, Coach Deter is a 1998 inductee of the Nebraska High School Coach’s Hall of Fame.
“It is the kids and how hard they worked,” said Deter, almost deflecting credit. “It was the kids that made the program a success from the very first dual to the final state championship.”
The scene on the gymnasium’s upper-deck for practice was always thick with bodies, and competition was intense, but nothing escaped his watchful gaze.
Joe Mejia, who wrestled four years at varsity for the Bulldogs, won two state titles in the 98-pound weight class in 1983 and 1984. He began wrestling because his brother, John Mejia, also a state champion at 105, wrestled.
Deter was a major influence for Joe, in “saying that he could represent a powerhouse like Gering and be successful at it.” Joe said he was privileged to represent all of the wrestlers who had worn the blue and gold before him, and set the bar for future Bulldog grapplers, and instill the motto of pride, tradition, excellence, conditioning, spirituality, and mental preparation.
It stands to reason that one of Gering’s most celebrated wrestlers, Joe holds seven Bulldog records that stand today, including 103 career wins.
John Stinner Jr., a varsity heavyweight for Deter from 1995 to 1997, said the beloved coach had everything to do with his reasons to start wrestling.
“In the 7th Grade, Coach Deter called my mother at home one afternoon and told her that he believed that I could be a good wrestler one day,” Stinner said, “based on what he had seen in gym class and on the football field. Without that phone call, I would have continued trying to play basketball.”
Deter also played a big role in why Stinner continued to wrestle.
“He would never, ever let any of us quit,” said Stinner, who won his only state title as a junior, and made the trip to Lincoln all three years on the team. He represented the United States in a series of dual meets in Central Asia in 1997. This was before earning a Division 1-A scholarship to the University of Wyoming. Stinner attributed much of this success to Deter.
As a coach, Deter held himself to the same standard, and stuck to the basic ingredients of keeping a winning tradition alive for so many years. “The key to success is hard work, set high goals and always expect to win. I’m not sure you ever think about success, it just happens with hard work, high standards and expectations,” he said.
It was the reason Randall Marquez, in Gering’s class of 1983, started wrestling in the 7th Grade, his interest sparked by the dominant high school teams being coached under Deter. “Gering produced great teams. It was that simple,” he said.
“Deter would come to the junior high tourneys, and watch the up-and-comers,” said Marquez, whose strongest showing was fourth place in the 119-pound weight class his junior year. “He knew what we were capable of, and he instilled that in us. The most important part was the people; everybody wanted to be on varsity. Every weight was about three or four deep, but Deter coached everyone. Reserves were the backbone they pushed the varsity even harder to get better, and to keep their spot. For a high school the size of Gering to produce the multiple champions year after year was disproportionate to the other schools competing in Class A or Class B. That part was amazing. He had this knack for recognizing potential, and pushed wrestlers, shaping attitudes, preparing us for success in other areas of life.”
Deter said good-bye to coaching at the 1997 Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament. Gering went into the Class-A tourney in Lincoln and captured the state championship. As part of the sendoff, Joe Mejia returned to help coach.
“This was an emotional event because my kids and I knew that it was going to be my last time to coach, and they really wanted it to be a championship. The final dual match was also emotional because it was against Sidney. And, Gering always had a great tradition of wrestling against the Red Raiders.”
After retiring from coaching, Deter stayed in the Gering school system as a teacher, and the high school’s athletic director. He continued to attend matches and ran several tournaments.
“My advice to new coaches,” said Deter whose coaching idol was Frank Powell, the wrestling head coach at Adams State College in Colorado who won back-to-back National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics titles in 1968-69. “Would be to insist on hard work but never forget that the athletes should be having fun. Also, a coach should be enjoying the sport and honor the long wrestling traditions.”
As I look back on those years, I still wonder who would have thought a small high school wrestling program would ever become a dynasty, especially one in Nebraska’s hinterlands. Yet, an entire community watched and generations of young wrestlers filtered through. And if you go back to that gym today, and stand on that upper-deck to look at the plaques hanging on the wall, you can hear the faint echoes of Deter’s voice screaming at his wrestlers, “Don’t quit! Don’t you ever quit!
Editor’s note: Frank Marquez was born in Scottsbluff and raised in Gering, and although he did not graduate from Gering High School, he has a strong affinity for his Nebraska brethren.