Walking up the stairs to Meridian's makeshift wrestling room, a towering, impressive vertical wall-painted mural of a muscular man donning a black singlet and black headgear with a red sash over his left shoulder greets passersby.
Next to the wrestler is a Greek Trojan-style helmet. The mural reads "Meridian Trojan Wrestling." It's an impossible painting to miss.
Before November 2008, the artwork was seen by Meridian wrestlers leaving and entering their wrestling room. The last four years, it's served as a reminder of what used to be.
"When I'd see it, I knew what it was and what this program can become," wrestler Jack Hallmark said. "As a freshman seeing it, I knew what Meridian wrestling was all about. I was just hoping it would come back one day."
In a sport that takes tremendous individual sacrifice and dedication to be great, Hallmark has made the ultimate individual effort off the mat. He did so before the 2012-13 season started.
Meridian cut its wrestling program four years ago. Trojan wrestlers have lacked a true team identity since.
When Hallmark left school during the winter sports season his freshman and sophomore year, he'd travel 20 minutes to Lynden, where he trained with coach Randy Anderson's Lynden High School wrestling squad.
Mount Baker took on Meridian's five wrestlers last season. Hallmark made the 23-minute drive everyday for practice.
"Wrestling here, nothing against Lynden or Mount Baker, but it's just not the same when you have to travel somewhere else and have their coach coach your team," Hallmark said. "It's just so much better here."
Meridian wrestling is back now, thanks largely to the persistence of Hallmark, who, after last year, was the only Trojan wrestler left. Hallmark's four male teammates graduated.
His hope Meridian would have its own wrestling team his senior year took on a promising development following Mount Baker's season-ending wrestling banquet.
"At the end of the season last year, I was told by the Mount Baker coach that I was invited back to Mount Baker for the co-op, and he had heard we might be getting our team back," Hallmark said. "Basically, immediately after that, I went to the athletic director and said, 'Hey, what's the deal with next season? Are we trying to get it back at Meridian, or are we going to Mount Baker? Or what?' He told me we were going to start looking for a coach. He put things online for it, and I kept getting little updates about things that were going on with Meridian wrestling."
Hallmark said the Meridian wrestling community had been pushing to bring the program back since it was cut. School officials supported him once it was decided to bring the program back.
"Our staff, the vice principal, the principal and the athletic director were all wrestlers or wrestling coaches," Hallmark said. "We kind of came together and put some posters around school. I'm pretty well known as the returning wrestler. People are always asking me, 'Hey, how's the season going. Is (wrestling) coming back to Meridian?' So people knew about it and had interest in it."
Hallmark was even appointed to Meridian's hiring board. He had a large say in bringing in new coach Fred Pulphus, who Hallmark said "would be the most supportive and understanding where Meridian is coming from as a wrestling program."
Pulphus is an expert in Greco-Roman wrestling and has been a national team USA wrestling coach since 1992. He helped Heritage High School win a Class 4A state title in 2003 and has been coaching USA wrestling in Whatcom County since then.
He trains top area wrestlers in his club program. That's how he got word of Meridian's situation.
"One of the wrestlers in the room said, 'Hey coach, Meridian is down, and it sounds like they might cut their program," Pulphus said. "So I called the school and talked to Kurt Harvill. I put my name in. My main interest was that I heard there was an opportunity to keep helping kids. Wrestling teaches you such great life skills. When I heard (about Meridian), it was done."
Pulphus was hired early October 2012 - a month and a half before the start of the season - and said Hallmark has been the "Pied Piper" of wrestling, trying to lure athletes to Meridian's wrestling room for turnout.
It didn't take long for the Meridian senior to make an impression on his new coach.
"Put it this way. From the day I got hired, Jack Hallmark started coming to the USA practices in preseason late October all the through November to the first day of practice," Pulphus said.
Putting a manageable wrestling room together was task in itself.
The room that overlooked Meridian's wrestling mural has served a school storage unit. Because Hallmark was the only returning wrestler, Pulphus and his club wrestlers turned the room into a functioning training center, while Meridian is working to provide a new wrestling room in the near future.
"It was nasty," Pulphus said. "The AD came up here and said it finally smells like wrestling."
The next step was getting new athletes to commit. As the only boys' wrestler planning to turn out, he had work to do.
"It was really honestly up to me to bring this team together and kind of restart this tradition of Meridian wrestling," Hallmark said. "I really had to get out there and get some of these football players and some of these other guys and people who have wrestled in the past but didn't do it anymore."
One by one, wrestlers trickled in.
"The first day he came to practice, he came with Savannah Grogg," Pulphus said. "The next day at practice, he came with Savannah Grogg and Neal Tilbury. He just kept bringing bodies. We are at 14 now and have some solid kids. Jack wanted a team, and basically he kept shaking branches until there was a team."
Hallmark's ability to recruit players landed the Trojans 125-pound wrestler Tomas Alvarado, who has served as a strong training partner for Hallmark, who wrestles at 132. Pulphus said both have the ability to place top three at this year's Mat Classic.
"My ultimate goal my senior year, of course, is to win state," Hallmark said. "I wake up every morning and tell myself, today I have to train hard. What's my opponent doing? I have to train hard. I have to be a state champ. Even if those goals aren't fulfilled, it's great that I've helped start this program up. It's such a great tradition here, and I just feel like I've already achieved this goal of bringing wrestling back to Meridian."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.