North Salem head wrestling coach Andy Pickett talks to his wrestlers during practice at the school on Monday, December 15, 2014, in Salem.
A universal challenge in building a sports program is for the coach to connect with their athletes.
Andy Pickett has done that.
With the youthful enthusiasm of a young coach, but the knowledge and passion of an old-time wrestling coach, Pickett has raised the expectation of North Salem High School’s wrestling team in his five years.
From a 10th-place district finish in his first year, the Vikings have steadily risen in the conference, and a year when they don’t win individual district championships would be disappointing.
“He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve had,” said senior Sam Hirons. “He knows when to harp on you when you’re not doing your job, he knows when to be your friend.
“I feel like he’s just right in the middle. He’ll push on you when you need it and he’ll give you a break when you need it. He’s a good friend to have, also. I’ll text him whenever and just tell him a joke or something. He’s a good person, a good coach.”
The attitude in North Salem’s program has improved dramatically in the past few years.
When Pickett was first hired as the high school’s head coach in 2010 after a year as an assistant coach, the team placed last in its league.
Now the Vikings are striving to improve on their sixth-place finish from last year.
“Personally my goal, and I told this to the kids at the beginning of the year, I wanted four individual regional champs this year, and then I would like to see at least four people place at state,” Pickett said.
“That’s the goal this year. And I kind of always change my goals by the team, because it depends on who you have on the team. As a team goal our team goal is to place in the top three this year. I think next year our goal will be No. 1. We’ll have to see how that plays out.”
Having wrestlers come through like Raymond Smith – a state champion in 2013, the school’s first in eight years – has elevated the level of competition within the team, and it has shown.
“It’s really just having goals and moving forward and saying we’re not satisfied with this,” Pickett said. “At the beginning when I had Raymond, his group didn’t have anybody to look up to because no one was tough. And so we had to instill in them how to work hard.
“These guys coming up, we have others in the room we can point to and say hey, do what he does. That’s, I think, why the whole team has stepped up. Now the room, you have to be better just to be in the room.”
Pickett graduated from McKay in 2002 after placing third at the state tournament his senior year.
After a year at Oregon Institute of Technology, he returned to Salem and started coaching under Rick Herrin at McKay.
He stayed in that position until being hired as a teacher at North Salem in 2008 and moved to that school as an assistant coach, then became the head coach a year later.
Pickett’s style, and style of wrestling he teaches his wrestlers, is reminiscent of Herrin’s technique.
North Salem adopted the former Holiday Classic wrestling tournament from McKay this season and renamed it the Rick Herrin Holiday Classic.
“Rick was a very positive influence on me and really like a second dad to me,” said Pickett, whose father Gil Pickett is a three-time Willamette Speedway Super Sport champion. “I’ve had a wonderful dad, still do, and Rick has always been like another father figure to me.
“He’s influenced me in the way that I coached and one of the main things that I’ve taken from him is it’s more about developing the person that’s going to be a productive member of society than success on the wrestling mat. He always kept that a focus, a priority. I would like to say that’s reflected in my style, too.”
When North Salem and other schools in town laid off teachers in 2011, Pickett moved from teaching geometry at Sprague from North Salem.
But he wasn’t going to stop coaching the Vikings.
Even basic communication between the athletes and coach takes more work than in a lot of situations, but everyone involved seems to be willing to make the effort.
“It’s a lot harder to talk to him,” said senior Cameron Harris, who returned to North Salem after a year at West Salem. “He’s at Sprague.
“I would like to talk to him personally a lot, but he’s over there so I kind of have to text him, let him know what’s going on instead of going up to his room, like, hey, this is what’s happening, can we do this and that, as a captain.”
Since Pickett has been teaching at Sprague, North Salem has yet to beat Sprague in a dual meet, but it’s been close.
You can be sure he’s heard about it from the other teachers at Sprague.
“I really feel like the kids here need me,” Pickett said. “I don’t know if I would feel the same if I coached at Sprague. I feel like these kids, we have a close bond and they need me more than the Sprague kids do.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6701 or follow at twitter.com/bpoehler