Not all stories have perfect endings

PORTLAND — The sports world is filled each year with poetic performances, where a teary-eyed individual overcomes season-long drama to exit the field of battle as the ultimate winner.

Jeremy Artoff had hoped to be one of those stories this week in the 112-pound bracket at the state wrestling tournament in the Memorial Coliseum.

In the end, though, his story involved more tears than triumph.

A year ago, he walked around the same venue in street clothes after being declared academically ineligible in the weeks prior to the Southern Sky Conference district tournament. Artoff diligently cheered on his teammates, but also took time to shake his head at his own circumstances and vow that he would turn his life around and be one of the competitors on the mat in 2009.

His vow came with Crater head coach Greg Haga only a step away, and the coach definitely had the look of someone who wasn't going to let Artoff out of his word.

Up until this year's state tourney, the rest of Artoff's journey has been chat-room fodder for most of the state.

He has had to shoulder the burden of being the most infamous wrestler in Oregon — known to outsiders as the ineligible wrestler whom Haga allowed to participate under an assumed name during a loosely run tournament in Hawaii over the winter break. In the practice room, though, he's just been Jeremy.

Artoff has endured more plot twists than the best daytime soap opera.

He claims he should have been eligible all along because he had passed enough mandatory classes to be eligible at the start of his senior year. His status in Crater's small-school system has been the subject of much debate. He switched from one school to another this past summer, and with that move, his eligibility standard changed. In one school, students must pass four of five classes; in another, it's five of seven.

It should be noted the school district isn't in full agreement with how Artoff and his supporters view his eligibility, and Central Point Superintendent Randy Gravon said as much during a recent school board meeting. State law prohibited Gravon from speaking further on the matter.

Still, Artoff plodded on, knowing his eligibility issues could only be rectified with a solid first semester in the classroom. He went from a cumulative 1.8 grade-point average to pulling down a 3.0 and was named the most improved student for October in the Crater Academy of Natural Sciences.

"Academics hasn't been my strong suit," said the 18-year-old, "but this year it was really important for me to turn that around."

Since Artoff had already purchased his ticket for the trip to Hawaii — which Crater last took when he was a freshman — it was never a question of whether he would go. He had planned to use the trip as a vacation, nothing more.

Then everything changed.

Given the laid-back nature of the tournament — no second-day weigh-ins, extra pound allowances and wrestlers occasionally switching teams to fill vacant weights — Haga made an assessment he most definitely wouldn't make now.

The coach tagged Artoff with the name "Billy Barr" — an inside joke on the team because of his struggles to run an arm bar — and sent him out on the mat.

There was no malice intended, nor any cover-up planned. In fact, those on the trip were excited to get their hands on tournament T-shirts just so they could parade around in Billy Barr T-shirts and share in the joke.

The Oregon School Activities Association, as we all know by now, did not find it nearly as funny and slapped Haga with a two-year ban from coaching the Comets or any other team. An appeal is scheduled in May.

No one took the news harder than Artoff, who attended the OSAA's special closed-door meeting on the issue. His eligibility was further delayed while the issue was sorted out, and it was bittersweet news he received on Feb. 3: The OSAA reinstated his eligibility but, hours later, ruled against Haga.

"When we were in that meeting room, he really didn't have to but he fought for me," said Artoff. "I'll never forget that."

It became one of the reasons Artoff dedicated every match since his return to Haga.

"No one's cared so much for me as he has," Artoff said in the days following the OSAA's decision. "He's a special man."

His storybook ending was on target until Friday night's semifinals, when Artoff essentially got too pumped up for his match and was emotionally drained before he even stepped on the mat.

He returned Saturday bent on finishing third, since that was as high as he could place, but that also was not to be. In the third-place final, he was penalized a point in the first round for fleeing the mat — although there's not much other recourse when someone grabs your ankle and puts you in jeopardy.

Matters only got worse moments later in the second period when he false-started three straight times from the top position. It was simply bad luck. He and opponent David Noah of Hillsboro became set just before a whistle on the next mat over was blown each time.

Artoff was penalized a third point for locking hands on a bang-bang scramble. With Noah scoring an escape after that, Artoff trailed 4-0 entering the final two minutes.

"From then on out it was just whatever I could do. I was pushing him as hard as I could, it just didn't work out," said Artoff, who gained an escape and a point for stalling by Noah but couldn't manage more in a 4-2 defeat that left him in a sobbing heap on the Coliseum's concrete floor.

Given time to let all the emotions out, Artoff returned, Haga again on his mind.

"It's an honor to be here after everything that's gone down with coach Haga and gone down with me," he said. "Tonight I get to live out what I've wanted to and walk in the Parade of Champions. I thank coach Haga for that, and everything he's ever done for me."

He didn't hesitate when asked whether he was disappointed in losing out on a perfect ending to an imperfect season.

"Life doesn't always work that way," he said. "You just kinda take your bumps and go through it. I've learned that more than anyone the past year."

And although Haga couldn't be there to watch, Artoff knows full well the triumphant vision his coach has for him — and it has little to do with where he finished at state.

"It's all about what I do with my life from here on out," he said. "The most important thing right now is my education."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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