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By René Ferrán | Photos by Leon Neuschwander 

Hayden Walters stood amidst a group of Crater fans and family members, watching from a corner of the Liberty High School gym as one of his teammates wrestled in a JV placing match at the Reser’s Tournament of Champions. 

A year earlier, Walters wore the white singlet of Crescent Valley to victory in the 195-pound division, part of a junior season that saw him win a third consecutive Class 5A state title and stamp himself as one of the top wrestlers in the nation. 

On this Saturday afternoon, however, Walters found himself wearing his civvies — long-sleeved Crater Wrestling shirt, jeans and a brace prominent on his right wrist — shouting instructions to his teammate, his voice joining the cacophony heard at any big wrestling tournament.

“Just watching my teammates makes me really want to get out there and wrestle,” said Walters, who dislocated the wrist in December in the final of the Reno Tournament of Champions. “But it is what it is. I’ve got to make the best of it.”

He returned to practice shortly before Reser’s took place the first weekend of February. He’ll have missed about two months when he wrestles at the Midwestern district tournament this weekend at Thurston High School in Springfield.

The time off the mat means “I’m a little big right now,” he joked. So, he’ll wrestle at 220 pounds in the postseason — putting him on a collision course with defending 5A champion Vaun Halstead of Thurston in the district final. Both will also have to contend with Sebastian Echeverria of Hillsboro, who lost to Halstead in last year’s state final, the following weekend at Memorial Coliseum in Portland.

Walters has thought a bit about what it would mean to face Halstead, a longtime rival, with the former looking to join the elite four-time state champion club and the latter hoping to complete an undefeated season with a second title.

“I think it’d be good,” Walters said. “I don’t necessarily think it has to be him, but it would be pretty cool if it was. It would be a good match, so that would make it fun. Make it more entertaining.”

Halstead also welcomes the challenge of perhaps denying Walters four-timer status.

“We’re good friends, and we’ve talked a lot about it,” Halstead said. “It’d be awesome to compete against him for my second title. But yeah, it would be kind of bittersweet. It’d be great because you win, but you know, it’s something that would be tough from a friendship standpoint.”

Growing up, Walters always figured he’d wrestle for Crater High School, just like his father, Denny (the fourth state champion in school history at 115 pounds in 1990), and his uncles and cousins (Morgan won a state title in 2012) before him.

But as Denny’s company, Expert Pressure Wash, continued growing, much of their expansion came in the Mid-Valley region of Corvallis and Albany. He and his wife, Angie, had discussed moving for several years before deciding to do so just before Hayden entered high school as a freshman.

“It was an extremely hard decision since Central Point had been our home, and the boys had grown up as Junior Comets,” Denny said. “We have a lot of history here, but there was no way we would split up the family, so all four of us (including younger son Ryland) made the move to Corvallis.”

The Walters’ move in the summer of 2019 coincided with Crescent Valley’s emergence as a wrestling power. The Raiders were coming off the program’s first state championship the previous season, and Walters’ arrival along with the transfer of three-time champion Santos Cantu III to the Corvallis school turned them into a juggernaut.

Denny saw a change in his son’s wrestling during his first season in the program.

“Hayden spent that first year working out with Santos, and it was an absolute game-changer,” he said. “He got beat up every day by one of the best guys in the nation, and he learned a lot in the process.” 

Walters recalled, “We knew they were going to be the toughest team. They were going to have the toughest partners, so it would be the best place for me to get better.”

Those lessons paid off during Hayden’s first visit to Memorial Coliseum in February 2020. He met defending champion Kyle Knudtson of Crook County in the 5A state final at 182 pounds, and a month after falling to Knudtson in the Reser’s TOC title match, Walters avenged that defeat with a 13-2 major decision and his first state title.

Hayden Walters Reser's TOC 2022 Leon Neuschwander 3

A couple of weeks later, COVID-19 erupted, and it wasn’t until June 2021 that Walters had the opportunity to defend his title — albeit at a state tournament put together by the Oregon Wrestling Association. He took home the gold medal with a third-period pin of Willamette’s Bryce Indell. 

COVID again affected his junior season, leading the OSAA to split apart the six state championships to different venues, sending the 5A meet to Ridgeview High School in Redmond. And again, Walters came out on top, again with a third-period fall — this time against Crook County’s Ray Solis

“It’s awesome. One step closer to the ultimate goal, which is four,” Walters said at the time. “It’s been a goal of mine since I started wrestling, so it feels good.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic hadn’t finished affecting the Walters family. While Hayden thrived in the Raiders wrestling room, Ryland struggled to adjust to his new home.

“He really struggled in Corvallis — being the new kid in a pandemic was miserable for him,” Denny said. “Ry needed the connection with his friends and family in Central Point.”

Hayden also saw his brother’s struggles, and at the same time, he felt the tug of being closer to family and becoming part of a program that his father had helped turn into a Southern Oregon power.

“I’d say 98% of my family lives down there, and we’re not a small family,” he said, smiling. “So, it’s good to see them.”

Still, he acknowledged it was difficult to leave the family he’d made for himself in the CV room.

“Yeah, you know, I miss my friends up there,” he said. “I’ve got my buddies, and I loved the coaches. They did a great job. But I’d say I have no regrets, because for my family, it’s the best decision for me and my family, so that’s the most important thing for me.”

Raiders senior DJ Gillett, who had grown up in the program with Walters, said that while “we hated to see him go, I think we understood the decision for the most part. We love the Walters family. We miss them. We wish them nothing but the best.”

“Obviously, it isn’t fun losing a three-time state champ from your program,” added Crescent Valley coach Chad Lamer. “He brought a lot of intensity and energy to our room. His family did what they felt was best for them. We wish the best for him. He’s a hard-working and nice kid.” 

The Raiders’ loss, though, was the Comets’ gain. And perhaps no one was happier to see Walters walk through the doors to Crater’s wrestling room than coach Greg Haga, who had watched Hayden grow up in the Comets youth program since he was in diapers.

He’d been disappointed when the Walters family moved to Corvallis but understood why. 

“I always have said that parents should do what they feel is best for their children,” he said.

Still, once he learned the family was returning to Central Point, he was ready for the homecoming.

“Denny had wrestled for me in high school, and then we coached together for many years,” Haga said. “Having a quality young man like Hayden in our room affects more than just wrestling. So, I was very happy to see him and Denny come back home.”

It also didn’t take long for his former Mat Club teammates to accept him back into the fold.

“You know, I thought it would be hard, but the team is really accepting,” Walters said. “A lot of the guys I grew up with, you know, wrestling tournaments on the weekends and just grinding in the mat room when we were little, it was good to see them again. They took me in, and now it’s like nothing ever happened, just like I’ve been there for all four years. So, it’s been nice.” 

Walters will be on the move again shortly after the 5A state championships conclude the final weekend of February. He’s already signed his letter of intent with the University of Michigan, and he plans to head to Ann Arbor sometime during the spring to begin training for the U20 World Team Trials (he reached the semifinals at 97 kilograms in freestyle last summer) in June in Geneva, Ohio. 

There, he’ll join former Raiders teammate Chance Lamer, who wrestled for the Wolverines this season after finishing as a four-time champion in June 2021. Lamer hosted Walters during his official visit, and while “he had a good sales pitch,” Walters already was sold on joining the Maize and Blue before making the trip.

“Honestly, when I started the process, I had no idea where it was going to go,” he said. “You know, I had favorites, but I ended up narrowing it down after a little bit, and those were my top three — Cornell, Michigan and Penn State. And I sat down with my family, and we just thought Michigan would be the best. 

“After taking everything into account, and what I found important in a school and where I’d want to live for the next five or six years, and even past that because they have a good RTC (regional training center) for after college wrestling, which played a factor in my commitment.”

Walters plans to study applied economics and business management at Michigan, which has the No. 10-ranked School of Business in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report, with a long-term goal of working on Wall Street.

He also hopes to one day follow in his dad and Haga’s footsteps and become a wrestling coach.

In the meantime, even after he heads to the Midwest to begin training with the Michigan coaches and soak in the atmosphere of his new program, he’ll complete his online work to earn his diploma.

So, would he return to Central Point to walk at graduation? 

“I think so,” he said. “They said I could, so I’d probably end up doing that.”

And would the Walters clan fill the gym?

“There will be a lot of them, yeah,” he said, grinning. “Quite a few of them.”

Walters reached the final of the Reno Tournament of Champions for the first time in December, dominating his first five opponents to set up a match against Nicholas Sahakian, a junior at St. John Bosco who won a California state title last winter.

Just 30 seconds into the match, Sahakian tried an arm spin, and Walters posted on the mat. As his right hand landed, he immediately knew something was wrong.

“They got me all fixed up and everything, but they never really gave me a date when I could return,” Walters said.

That was the last time he took the mat for a match, but he hasn’t bided his time waiting to return. He’s spent time in the weight room and doing other workouts before receiving clearance to return to practice in late January.

“It’s feeling good,” he said. “It should be normal by state, so I’m excited for that.”

Walters enters the postseason with an 84-10 career record and, despite his injury, ranked No. 3 in the nation at 215 pounds in the most recent SBLive/Sports Illustrated national rankings.

If he were to win a state title in his final high school match, he would become the first wrestler to join the four-time champions club in a Crater singlet.

And it would complete his long and circuitous journey home.

“I hadn’t really thought about it, but as it’s getting closer, I’m starting to get more and more excited,” Walters said. “I’m excited like I was freshman year, you know, sophomore and junior year. I’m excited to wrestle, to compete again, especially with the injury, coming back for (state). So, I’m really excited.”