Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: A few short years from now the Hermiston High School Robotics Club will have several championship banners hanging from the school walls. It’s a safe bet because the guy teaching robotics at HHS is none other than Curt Berger, the man with three state team tennis titles and six team wrestling titles to his name.
The latter feat is what recently got Berger inducted into the Oregon Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. It’s an honor Berger downplays, but undoubtedly means a lot to him and the wrestlers he coached for 21 years. In fact, on the night of the induction ceremonies earlier this month in Tigard, all of Berger’s wrestlers from the 2001 team – the first of his teams to win the state championship – were in attendance.
“Being the first team to win the title meant so much to them,” Berger said. Berger took over the wrestling program in 1991. He had wrestled at Oregon State University and knew he would eventually want to get into coaching.
“I just wanted to give back to the sport,” he said. “Both my parents were teachers and I wanted to teach, and coaching seemed like a natural thing to do.”
The Hermiston High School wrestling team was no rag-tag program he was taking over.
“They were pretty good,” Berger said. “They were on the map.”
Berger, however, would turn Hermiston into the state capital of wrestling, but it wouldn’t happen overnight. After winning the state title in 2001 as a 4A squad, the team didn’t win its second until six years later.
“We had won and then kind of tapered off,” he said. “Then we won again and were able to keep up the intensity and enthusiasm. Sometimes you win with a young team and you have them around for several years and are able to win again and again.
“But a lot of it has to do with the vision of the coaching staff and the dedication of the parents. If you don’t have parents who are going to do the work of taking the kids to camps and clinics in the offseason then you’re not going to be very good. We had a group of parents for a really long time that really put in the work. Those families were with us every step of the way.”
After claiming its second state title in 2007 as a 5A team, the HHS wrestling program took off, terrorizing the competition for the next several years.
Berger explains the 2007-2011 title run as a product of moving up to 5A.
“It was easier to win it as a 5A team than a 4A team,” he said. “There were 90-plus teams in 4A and only 37 in 5A.” But Berger admits some of his teams would have won even if they’d stayed at the 4A level.
“We probably would have won two or three during that run even if we were in 4A,” he said.
Berger said there’s no secret to his winning formula. It comes down to effort, he said.
“The quality of the program has been very high over the years due to the work ethic,” he said. The work ethic, according to Berger, is something that a lot of people take for granted.
“I’ve had parents that told me they knew we were going to be good,” he said. “But I told them that we weren’t going to be good for the reason they thought we were going to be good. They thought we were going to be good just because we were good and always have been good. I knew we were going to be good because of the hard work we were putting into the program.”
That hard work resulted in an almost-mindboggling record during his tenure:
• 7 district titles
• 6 state titles
• 20 state champion wrestlers with 33 individual state titles
• 111 wrestlers that placed in the state tournament over the years
• A 294-68-2 record in dual meets
For Berger, the destination was never the thing – it was the journey that mattered and how you got to where you were going.
“We’ve never been as concerned about winning state titles as were about being the best we could be,” he said. “State titles were just a by-product of that.”
Although it’s his wrestling accomplishments that have given Berger his biggest honors, he’s more interested in talking about his years coaching the HHS tennis teams.
“In wrestling, I knew what I was doing,” he said. “I didn’t know a thing about tennis when I took over. I didn’t even know what a volley was when I took over the JV team.”
Berger said he wanted to coach tennis for his daughters, but he first had to figure out what he was doing. He began by doing the only thing he knew how to do: Work hard. He would watch the varsity tennis practices from 4-6 p.m., before holding JV practices from 6 to 8 p.m.
“That gave me four hours of tennis every day,” he said. He began playing as much tennis as possible, watching matches on television, attending clinics and learning from those who did know what they were doing. His oldest daughter would take lessons at the Tri-City Court Club and Berger attended every one of them with a pen and notepad.
“I just took notes on what the coach was teaching her,” he said. He pushed his players as hard as he pushed himself.
“We worked hard and practiced a lot,” he said. “When I say we worked – it was unbelievable compared to what the other teams were doing. I just saw what it takes to win. Whoever hits the most balls wins.”
He eventually took over the varsity tennis team and it wasn’t long before it, too, began to amass state titles. The girls team won state titles three straight years and the girls doubles team won the state title five consecutive years. In the process, the entire Intermountain Conference improved.
“The league rose up in quality during that time because they were competing on a regular basis against the state champions,” he said.
Berger’s coaching career ended last year when he retired, a surprising move for a man who is just 50.
“I never planned on coaching forever,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of stress. The expectations add to it. And every year I was doing more administration and less coaching – things that weren’t the reason for me getting into coaching in the first place.”
And though his days of coaching sports are over, he’s not ready to rest on his laurels.
“I always ask myself, ‘What have I done lately?’ I’m looking for the next phase of my life right now.”
That next phase could be in the field of robotics. Berger is teaching computer-aided design at the high school and oversees the school’s robotics club.
“I like the technology,” he said. “It’s been a very good experience. Robotics is really relevant and it keeps things fresh for me.” The HHS Robotics Club club took second place at the FIRST Tech Challenge competition in Portland in February. It was the club’s first year in competition and Berger, the club’s advisor, has his sights on a run at the state tournament next year.
For a man who doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on his past accomplishments (“You won’t see any trophies in my house,” he said. “They’re in boxes somewhere.”), Berger said he was honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and admits that when he does look back, he realizes just how much his teams accomplished.
“The Hall of Fame was never anything I was looking for at all,” he said. “But I look back and say, ‘Man, we were awesome!’ ”