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Small-town boys are big-timers on the mats

The secret's out, and it's not that three-time world motorcycle racing champion Kenny Roberts and Foster Farms co-owner Tom Foster both reside here.

Nope, this news comes out of the Hickman High athletic department. Per capita, no one in the state can match what its wrestling team can put on the mat.

Wait a minute! Hickman doesn't have a high school.

That depends on whom you talk to.

Odds are, if it's a member of the state-ranked Hughson High wrestling team -- 10 of the Huskies' 13 starters and their coach hail from Hickman -- you'll get an interesting answer.

"If we had our own high school, we wouldn't even have 100 kids," said Adam Acosta, one of four seniors in the Husky lineup from Hickman. "But we'd still be the third-ranked team in the state.

"We may be called Hughson High ... but it feels like we're Hickman High."

Here are 10 weight-class and won-loss reasons why:

* 103 pounds: freshman Ed Adams (24-9)

* 112: sophomore Cliff Acosta (36-3)

* 119: senior Jer Joslin (11-15)

* 125: junior Floyd Reed (25-8)

* 135: freshman Steve Strange (39-4)

* 140: senior Gary Madsen (28-8)

* 145: junior Josh Ichord (34-4)

* 152: senior Adam Acosta (33-3)

* 160: senior Aaron Porter (38-0)

* 171: junior Josh Golding (22-12)

All live in Hickman, most of them all their lives.

So just what's going on in this enclave of 471 people, located on the south bank of the Tuolumne River eight miles east of Hughson?

"Wrestling in Hickman -- it's just like breathing," said Porter, the state's No. 1-ranked wrestler in his class and a fourth-place state finisher as a junior. "It's bred in us.

"That's why we're the wrestling capital of the world."

It starts young in these parts. Most boys in town join the Hickman Wrestling Club in about the first grade and travel to freestyle tournaments during the summer.

"Most give it a try, and a good number of them stay with it," said Doug Porter, Aaron's father, club founder and coach of the Hughson High team. "There's a number of fathers in Hickman my age -- we wrestled together back in the '70s. We've stayed in this area, and our sons like to wrestle, too.

"What separates us from other towns is simple: We take family, school, work, wrestling and church very serious here. ... Call it old-fashioned, but we've got fine young men growing up here, and they're proud of Hickman."

Nonwrestling Hickman is proud of them, too.

"They call me the unofficial mayor of Hickman, so I'll declare this," said Haskell "Chick" Thomas, 57, a heavy equipment operator for Foster Farms. "I've lived here 23 years, and I've never met a more classy bunch of kids anywhere.

"They wrestle like Hickman works -- blue collar, never-say-die and not intimidated by anything."

And innovative.

That was surely the case in 1990, when the Hickman Junior High wrestling team -- the town has a kindergarten-through- eighth-grade school with 238 students -- went unbeaten with only seven wrestlers in its lineup.

There weren't any rules back then about multiple competition, so Adam Acosta and Madsen each wrestled and won two different weight classes. The 150-pound Porter went even farther, winning the final three classes in one dual meet: 152, 165 and heavyweight.

"By the time I beat the heavyweight, I was dead tired," Porter said. "We really wanted to get a team together that year, and we wrestled the extra weights because we didn't want to lose to anyone.

"Thankfully, Mrs. Golding agreed to coach us."

Rules did state that each school had to have one of its teachers present for supervision. Enter English teacher Pat Golding, Josh's aunt.

"That was so much fun -- something I'll never forget," she said. "I can say what most coaches can't: I coached one year, never lost and used a Macy's bag for our med kit."

The goal is a state team title -- despite the odds.

Santa Ana's Calvary Chapel High stands in the way, and so does a perennially tough bunch from Madera High. The state meet is March 4-5 at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

Calvary has become the state's power program. With 522 students, it's another small-school success story -- but under entirely different circumstances.

The private Christian school draws the best wrestlers from Orange County -- population 2.5 million -- and other pockets of the Los Angeles basin. The Eagles are coached by Modesto native John Azevedo, considered by many as one of the nation's bright young coaching minds.

Aaron Porter thinks it's possible to win the title. Of course, he thinks anything's possible after beating the best medical odds against fully recovering to compete again after back surgery left him in a body cast for two months back in 1992.

"We've all got to wrestle above our heads -- it's got to be a perfect two-day run for us," said Porter, younger brother of two-time state champion Kyle Porter, now a freshman wrestler on full scholarship at Wyoming University. "As far as having to beat the odds goes, that's nothing new for us.

"That's just what we do in Hickman. Most little kids get to a certain age and look forward to getting that first bike. Here, we look forward to that first singlet."

In Hickman, everyone knows a singlet is a wrestling uniform.

They learn to wear them very well.

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