Alpena's wrestling program has been on a steady uphill climb over the last few seasons and finished off its 2013-14 year with its first ever team district title.
Much of this success can be attributed to the winning habits of RJ Centala, who recently capped off a 14-year career by becoming the first Alpena wrestler to win an individual regional title and qualify for the state finals since 2008.
"Its definitely a big moment for me. I always dreamed of going to the state tournament. Ever since I could walk I've been wrestling, so its always been a big deal," Centala said.
News File Photo
Alpena’s RJ Centala, right, wrestles Midland Dow’s Jeff Searle during a Division 1 140-pound district match at Alpena High School. Centala is Alpena’s first state qualifier since 2008.
Centala (33-11) will wrestle in the 140-pound weight class against Southgate Anderson junior Logan Parks (50-1) tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the opening round of the Division 1 individual wrestling finals.
Parks is currently ranked fourth in the state at 140, while Centala earned an honorable mention.
"RJ's got a pretty tough bracket, but he can wrestle with those guys. He's been doing it all year long," Alpena coach Jake Stenz said.
Centala won't be the first wrestler in his family to qualify for the state finals. In fact, this is just the latest success in a multi-generation Centala family wrestling tradition.
His uncle Scott Centala was on Rogers City's first wrestling team. His cousin Dylan Centala won two state championships for Rogers City while cousins Zach Centala and Andrew Centala won multiple all-state awards with the Hurons.
However, Centala's biggest influence was undoubtedly his father Bob Centala. Bob not only started coaching RJ when he was four, but was a state qualifier for Rogers City in 1980. He finished fifth in a strong field.
"I introduced him to (wrestling) and he seemed like a natural fit. He was my first kid and a boy and I kind of coached him in everything, baseball, football, but wrestling was the big thing," Bob said.
RJ was introduced to wrestling by his father's work with the Alpena youth wrestling squad. Bob helped found the Alpena youth wrestling program with Scott Neslund in 2000.
This program focuses on teaching elementary school wrestlers basic moves and helps ease them into the rigors of varsity level wrestling.
Neslund initially reached out to Bob due to name recognition.
"Scott called me up and said 'I just started a youth wrestling program. You're a Centala from Rogers City and you can help me coach,'" Bob said.
RJ was one of the first beneficiaries of this new youth program and this early preparation helped him become a standout wrestler for the Wildcats. He picked up his 100th win last year and has continually been a source of much needed points for Alpena during tough team tournaments.
RJ generally wins by pin, but he also knows how to win on points. He used these skills to qualify for regionals his sophomore and junior year.
After being stymied twice in the regionals, RJ reached out to his coach and father for support. With their help, he used his senior year to improve his skills and finally make it to the state finals.
"(RJ) really turned a corner this year. He's always had a pretty good record and done very well. But, after matches this year he'd ask coach Zane (Stenz) and I 'What did I do wrong? Why did that happen? Why is this not working?'" Stenz said. "The big thing is, he started to look back at what he was doing wrong and what he needed to do to improve himself. That's the difference between being a regional qualifier and a state qualifier."
Anybody who has been to an Alpena meet when RJ is wrestling notices he is getting instructions from both Stenz and his father.
"Even if (my dad) hasn't been my official coach, he's been there to tell me what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong," RJ said. "He usually comes to most of my meets whenever he can and in between matches he's giving me advice."
That kind of family connection and tradition isn't unusual in the wrestling world. Coach Jake Stenz coaches with brother and former Alpena wrestler Zane Stenz, who picked up over 200 career wins. Baby brother Morgan Stenz finished with a 120-15 record and was a four time Big North All-Conference selection.
This tight-knit atmosphere didn't stop with just family members. Bob's mother and father invited original Rogers City wrestling coach Bill Barrett to their home for the holidays every year.
This wrestling family tradition helped to create an atmosphere that allowed RJ to hone his abilities to a higher level and to fulfill he, and his fathers, lifelong dreams.
"The moment he qualified, I've never been so happy. I know what it takes just to get there," Bob said. "He had the number one, number two and the number six guy in his bracket (in regionals). So it was quite an accomplishment and when he won it was a huge relief. You couldn't get the smile off of me.
Eric Benac can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.