From underdogs to top dogs, Nampa High wrestling on the brink of ending 28-year state championship drought

Roy Perales had no intention of applying for the job.

Two years later, the Nampa High School wrestling coach has the program on the cusp of ending one of the state’s longest title droughts.

With 15 qualifiers, four of whom are district champions, Perales will look to guide his team to the school’s first state title of any kind in 28 years at the Idaho 4A State Wrestling Championships Friday at the Ford Idaho Center.

“We’ve always been looked down on and been the underdogs for I don’t even know how long,” said 106-pound freshman Carson Exferd. “And now everyone knows us as one of the top dogs.”

Perales and assistant coach Corey Caywood were both on the last Nampa High team to win a state title. Perales was a 112-pound freshman, while Caywood was the 125-pound state runner-up on Jim Squibb’s 1992-1993 A-1 championship group, which also featured four other state placers.

“It was amazing. I’m still in contact with a lot of the guys now,” Caywood said. “They still keep track of us and want to see us bring one back.

“There’s a lot of tradition and it’s been away for a little bit, but there’s a lot of people that haven’t paid attention for a while who are starting to pay attention again.”

To put it in perspective, rival Bishop Kelly has won 104 total state championships since Nampa last hung a banner up in its rafters.

The downward trend started even before Perales graduated. Skyview High School opened in the fall of 1996, which basically cut Nampa High in half. So there were just three state placers for the Bulldogs, including Perales, his senior year.

By the time Perales returned to Nampa after wrestling for Clackamas Community College (Oregon) to join Wally Lester’s staff for the 1999-2000 campaign, the program had fallen on some pretty difficult times. Nampa didn’t have a single state placer the year before and had none again in his first season back.

Perales left after the season to finish his schooling up north at the University of Idaho. While he was gone, Caywood, who wrestled with Perales at Clackamas, and Boise State, along with Nathan Navarro, a three-time state champion out of nearby Ontario High School and an Oregon State alum, both came on board. Perales rejoined right before the 2005-06 season after a stint at Boise High.

After not having so much as an individual state champion for a five-year stretch (1997-2001), the Bulldogs bounced back in the mid to late 2000s, but still took a backseat to the other crosstown schools. They were the 4A runners-up to Skyview in 2005 after going 0-5 in the semifinals. Nampa was 27-0 in duals that season, including 2-0 against the Hawks with three tournament wins during the regular season. It then had three consecutive fourth-place finishes behind Columbia’s three-peat from 2009-11.

Nampa also finished fourth in 2013 and had four individual state champions over the next two seasons, including Perales’ son Mikel, who set a school record with 183 career wins with back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014.

“I don’t think as a whole anybody took Nampa High School real serious even when we were having some success,” Roy Perales said. “We were like a few other schools in the area where we were going to have success here and there, but not consistently a winner.”

Nampa went undefeated in conference duals for the first time in 16 years.

And by the following season, Perales, Navarro and Caywood, who had left four years earlier, were all gone. They decided to really focus more on the Bulldog Wrestling Club program, which Perales and Navarro reshaped in 2009.

After training several wrestlers who were enrolling in other schools, they decided to only allow kids in who were going to an elementary or middle school that fed directly into Nampa High.

“There were a lot of clubs that weren’t around back then. So we didn’t want to do the dirty work of the other coaches and put in the time and effort into the younger kids only for them to go off somewhere else,” Navarro said. “We just wanted to focus on the kids who wanted to be Bulldogs and we got a lot of backlash for it.”

But Perales and Navarro hit every single elementary school that fed into West and Lone Star Middle Schools. They sat in lunch rooms for days on end with custom flyers that Navarro’s wife had personally made.

The strategy worked. Within a few years, close to 100 kids were in the program going to tournaments all over the country in places like Iowa and Nevada’s Reno World Championships. They also got results.

In 2019, the West Middle School wrestling team ended Kuna’s 37-year district championship streak — a Guinness World Record.

“We kept telling people, ‘We got a storm brewing,’” Navarro said. “So we kind of knew what we had in our backyard.”

Meanwhile, the high school program had regressed. In the same year its middle school team was making history, Nampa High had just two state placers — the lowest in five years. The Bulldogs then hit new lows losing by 60 points in duals to both Columbia and Kuna the following season.

They had less fans in the stands that year than they did this season with COVID-19 restrictions.

“It was very tough going into high school with a new atmosphere and a completely different coaching staff,” said 120-pound junior Peyton Munson, who started in the Bulldog Wrestling Club in the fourth grade. “I had to watch my team not care that we were losing that big in dual matches and being satisfied with very few winning wrestlers.”

So when Luke Crockett resigned at the end of that season, Perales spent months looking for the right man for the job. But the answer was right in front of him all along. It was something his wife Kristi pointed out after he told her he wasn’t applying following a text message from a kid while they were out at lunch.

“She said ‘Roy, you’ve been driving all over the state with no kid in the program since Mikel left on our money, paying for hotel rooms on our money, paying for gas on our money to volunteer to get all these kids going'” Perales said. “And I know how much they mean to you. And every single time you leave one, and they give you a hug, or they shake your hand, you say, ‘Let me know if you need something. I got you.’ Well Roy, they’re telling you right now they need you and you’re not saying, ‘I got you.’ You don’t have them. So do you have them or you not?”

Perales applied and was hired shortly after. His first call was to Navarro and his second to Caywood.

“There was a piece of it that was kind of like putting the band back together,” Perales said.

They hit the hallways just like before and brought back kids like junior heavyweight Zane Lovell, who had quit the year before under the previous coaching staff. All in all, 76 kids came out that first year.

The Bulldogs won Wiley Dobbs, took fourth at Rollie Lane — the first top-5 finish there since 2005 — and third at districts. They had three wrestlers in state finals, including 98-pound sophomore Dedrick Navarro, who became the first individual state champion at Nampa in five years. Nampa missed out on its first state trophy in seven years by finishing just 2.5 points behind Lakeland for fifth place.

Perales was both the District III and 4A State Coach of the Year that season (2019-20).

“To be honest, I didn’t feel anything winning those,” Perales said. “I had a really bad taste in my mouth not bringing home a trophy. I just felt like we didn’t get it done. So I don’t think I ever let myself appreciate what we did a year ago. I was too busy trying to figure out what went wrong at the state tournament and how do we get better next year.”

He seems to have figured most of it out.

The Bulldogs went 15-2 in duals this year with their only losses coming by two points to three-time defending 5A state champion Post Falls and nine to two-time reigning 4A champion Kuna. They also went undefeated in conference duals for the first time in 16 years, beat Columbia for the first time in 14 years and just won the first district title in six years by 140 points last week.

“I felt so thankful that I could be a part of something so great,” Munson said. “During my freshman year, I never thought I would be able to say that I was on Nampa’s district championship team. Now with our coaches and my childhood best friends doing it together, I’m just so thankful to be a part of this program.”

The only thing left is state. And with guys like No. 1 seed Dedrick Navarro (98), last year’s state runner-up Simon Alberto Luna (113), district champion Dominic Gonzalez (132) and a 32-0 Exferd, who is trying to become the first undefeated state champion in program history, Perales may have figured out that formula too.

One that may not have been possible without him.

“I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else but Nampa High School. I bought the house I live in so my kids could be Bulldogs,” Perales said. “So I don’t know if I have the words right now to say what it would mean. I can’t speak for them, but I can show you my cell phone and the text messages I’ve been getting for the last week.”

“It would be a big deal for a long time.”

— Brandon Walton

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