Things were looking good for Luke Spruill. A two-time state wrestling champion, the 1995 Kenai Central graduate had his sights set on a big-time college wrestling career. But a horrific car accident in the winter of 1996 left Spruill with a broken back and shattered dreams.
At that point, it would have been easy for Spruill to give up. But instead of quitting, Spruill fought his way back to become a member of the Iowa Hawkeyes, one of nation's most elite collegiate wrestling programs.
Now an assistant coach for the Kardinals, Spruill hopes to bring that tenacious spirit to a once-proud Kenai team that's fallen on hard times recently.
"I don't like the word can't," Spruill said in an interview earlier this month. "If you want it done bad enough, you're going to get it done."
Getting it done will be a challenge for the Kardinals, who this year field a squad with only 10 to 12 consistent team members. That's a far cry from when Spruill was at Kenai, when it was not uncommon for as many as 30 wrestlers to come out for the team each year.
Spruill hopes to help head coach Tony Prior turn things around by bringing enthusiasm back to a program that was once among the top squads in the state.
Between 1963 and 1996, Kenai had at least one wrestler place at state each year. During that time, Kenai turned out 32 individual state champions, five state second-place teams and even a professional football player -- Atlanta's Travis Hall -- who took second at state at heavyweight for Kenai in 1989.
But since then, Kenai has only had three wrestlers place at state. It's Spruill's goal to help rebuild the program into a contender. To do that, he said he'll try and incorporate some of the principles he learned under Iowa head coach Dan Gable, arguably the greatest amateur wrestler of all time.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Assistant coach Luke Spruill, above, and head coach Tony Prior demonstrate a wrestle move during a recent practice.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"At Iowa, practice was so bad, competition was actually a break. There was one time (in practice) I was so tired I had to crawl back to the bench, but I couldn't crawl up on the bench. I just laid there," Spruill said.
Just getting to Iowa was a challenge for Spruill. After breaking his back, numerous scholarship offers from Division I wrestling programs disappeared, turning him from a promising prospect to a virtual has-been overnight.
"My philosophy was win and only win in high school because I had never faced adversity," he said.
Once his wrestling prospects were damaged, Spruill said he suddenly found himself on the outside looking in when it came to college.
"My grades weren't very good," he admitted.
He enrolled at a junior college, where he worked to get his grades up to acceptable levels. After two years of rehabilitation and study, Spruill was finally ready to get on the mat at Iowa. But the Hawkeyes had no scholarships for him, so he had to wrestle as a walk-on, forced to prove himself each day by outworking everyone in the room.
"Dan Gable said I was one of the hardest workers he had ever seen," Spruill said.
That hard work could only get him so far. A series of injuries -- including a second broken back and the degeneration of both his hips -- meant he would never see much time on the mat. In his four years at Iowa, Spruill wrestled only five matches, winning just once.
It was a far cry from the success he'd seen in high school, when he was one of the most dominant wrestlers in the state. But for Spruill, just getting to be part of a program like Iowa's was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
"It still hurts that I didn't accomplish all my goals," he said. "But if I hadn't tried, the regret would have been the worst thing I ever felt."
Now that his wrestling career is over, Spruill said he wants to help inspire a new generation of Kenai grapplers. He's getting used to the idea of coaching, although figuring out just how hard to push the young, mostly inexperienced Kenai team has been a challenge at times.
"Sometimes I want to kick 'em in the butt, but sometimes it takes a pat," he said.
His focus now is on helping Prior rebuild the program into something resembling its former self. To do that, Kenai's coaches will have to work with what they've got -- a small, dedicated group of wrestlers hoping to gain some experience and a little confidence this season.
It won't be easy, but for someone who's faced the kind of adversity Luke Spruill has, it's just one more challenge to look forward to.
"I think this is a great atmosphere to build something," he said. "If you lose, you just try to be more determined, to work harder. That's how we're going to build a team."
As for making a career out of coaching, Spruill said wrestling is in his blood, and he's likely to continue in the sport he loves. He's got high hopes for Kenai, and he's not shy about stating his ultimate goal for the program.
"I'd like to be here to see Kenai win a state championship."
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