Greg Hansen: Legend of the fall: Finch 1 of best ever

After going 203-2, Safford star set to move in new circle
2010-03-21T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Legend of the fall: Finch 1 of best everGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 21, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Ryak Finch weighs 119 pounds. You do not want to mess with him.

He runs at dawn, lifts before lunch, flips tractor tires that tower over his head, uses a 35-pound rock as a shot put and knocks off 100 push-ups and 300 sit-ups before bed.

"We couldn't beat him," said Sunnyside wrestling coach Bobby DeBerry. "We tried, many times, but never did." And when did the 14-time state champion Blue Devils coach ever say that?

Finch completed his high school career on a 161-match winning streak. He was 203-2 as a Safford Bulldog. He has won two National Junior championships.

Finch wrestles hundreds of miles off the beaten track, but during the NCAA recruiting season the nation's elite college coaches burned some serious tire tread in attempt to make him a Nittany Lion or a Cyclone or even part of the formidable Cornell Big Red.

"It has been a whirlwind," said his mother, Judy Finch. "It has been awesome."

The whirlwind that is Ryak Finch boarded a plane for Pittsburgh last week, whereupon he became just the eighth Arizona wrestler in 36 years to compete in Saturday's Dapper Dan Classic. Finch won his match Saturday by an 8-5 decision. On April 10, he will be in Team USA's lineup in the Dream Team Classic in Chicago.

"This is like a basketball player being in the McDonald's All American Game," said Safford coach Herman Andrews Jr. "I don't know who the best wrestler in Arizona history is, but if it's not Ryak, I'd have to see it to believe it."

Depending on the source, the best schoolboy wrestler in Arizona history is Curley Culp or Eddie Urbano or Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo. Or maybe Eric Larkin or one of Sunnyside's Gallick brothers, Nick or Nate. There is no definitive answer. Being part of the debate is enough.

Ryak doesn't seem concerned about any of that. His high school wrestling days are in the book and he aims considerably higher than 2008, 2009 and 2010 state championships.

"I've always dreamed about being an NCAA champion," he said. "And I've always worked toward being an Olympic champion. I know that when I get to Iowa State this summer it's going to be a humbling experience, but that's just part of the process. For me to get to where I want to go, I've got to take on the best, and that's why I'm wrestling at Iowa State."

Iowa State recruits wrestlers the way Duke recruits basketball players. The Cyclones have won eight NCAA championships. Given his high profile, Finch knows that expectations are going to be crazy, maybe worse.

"All the work I've done in wrestling since I was 6 years old has been with the purpose of getting to the very highest level," he said. "Iowa State is the highest level in college wrestling. I don't plan to go there and just be OK."

Rick Finch grew up in St. Johns and ultimately moved to Safford to work in the mines at nearby Morenci. He named his only son Ryak based on a video game hero. When Ryak was 6, the two formed a union: Ryak would wrestle and Rick would be his coach-facilitator-transportation chief. There has been no looking back and no compromise.

To keep his body in optimum condition, Ryak long ago swore off soda pop, candy and junk food. Vacation? After the Junior Nationals in late July, he might kick back for a week or two.

"Ryak's work ethic is unchallenged," Andrews said. "He just punches it out, every day, with those workouts at home, lifting tractor tires, throwing big, heavy rocks. You don't get where he is at by splitting your energies into another sport, or going fishing all the time."

Finch laughs when asked about the total mileage he and his dad have driven, Safford to Tucson, or Safford to Phoenix, for the last decade. They go where the better competition is, weekend after weekend. And now they'll go to Ames, Iowa.

Safford and the Thatcher area have produced many high-profile athletes through the years, including major-league pitcher D. J. Carrasco and NCAA track and field champion Jess Mortensen.

Now comes Ryak Finch, who isn't just a wrestler but a 3.9 student and, according to Andrews, a 3.9 role model.

"All the kids look up to him," Andrews said. "He's a nice kid; he has gone about it the right way."

Finch will be prepared for the fishbowl environment a wrestler lives at Iowa State. Everybody knows him in Safford. Everybody watches. Everybody whispers.

"There are a lot of eyes on me," he said.

In this case, seeing is believing.

all-star athletes

Check out who we honored as the top girls and boys basketball players and wrestlers in Southern Arizona for winter 2010. Page C10

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