By JIM BESEDA/for OSAAtoday
PORTLAND -- Wilsonville senior Austin Sprecher already had been declared a winner before he stepped on the mat for the opening round of Saturday’s 5A OSAA/On Point Community Credit Union wrestling championships at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Sprecher, the Wildcats’ 152-pounder, beat cancer last year.
He got to wrestle three matches in the state tournament — a loss, followed by a win and another loss — but his presence at the tournament was a testament to his competitive spirit, his family’s faith in God, and the incredible work done by the staff at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
“It was tough being sick — one of the toughest things I’ve ever gone through and I think, personally, one of the toughest things I ever could have faced,” Sprecher said. “I feel blessed that I could get back on the mat and continue to compete in the sport I love."
Sprecher was diagnosed with stage 3b Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Oct. 18, 2021, after an x-ray revealed a melon-sized tumor in the middle of his chest.
Surgery wasn’t an option with the tumor right over his heart and lungs. So, Sprecher’s doctors ordered 12 rounds of chemotherapy — one round every two weeks for six months.
It was the lowest low of Sprecher’s high school career.
“Horrible,” he said. “Those sessions made me feel very, very sick. I didn’t want to move or eat or do anything for days on end. I just kind of had to go with the flow and roll with the punches because there really wasn’t much that I could do.”
Sprecher stayed close to the Wilsonville wrestling program during his junior year — or at least as close as his treatment would allow him — serving as a team manager.
“Austin came to practice fairly often, but not every day,” Wilsonville coach Jason Milham said. “It kind of depended on how he was feeling and what he had going on, but he was at practice more than not.
“Then he came to some of the tournaments and when he was there he’d help with filming or just being with his teammates. He definitely was around and part of the program, for sure.”
Shortly after Sprecher completed his treatment last March and the peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line was removed, he dove into regular workouts at the All-Phase Wrestling Club in West Linn.
“I was in pretty bad shape,” he said. “I was weak, I’d lost a lot of muscle, I’d gained a lot of fat, and I’d just gone up in weight. But over the summer, I lifted a lot of weights and that’s what got me a lot stronger.
“When the preseason came around, that’s when I started to cut weight. And then when the regular season started, that’s when I cut down a lot and felt a lot better.”
Sprecher spent most of the season competing in the 160-pound weight class. He probably could have gone 152, but the Wildcats needed him at 160, so that’s what he did. He also enjoyed some early success, placing fourth at the Rick Herrin Holiday Classic in Salem and another fourth at the PAC-RIM Armed Forces Tournament in Seaside.
“What a great story, right?” Milham said. “He had a great freshman year, a typical sophomore slump, and then, obviously, he had to deal with his health as a junior.
“He comes back as a senior and fills a role for us, and he won a ton of matches, most of them full, six-minute matches. And then he finds a way to qualify for the state tournament. That’s being hard-nosed, willing to work, and not letting other things define him in different ways. He just said, ‘I’m going to have a great season,’ and that’s what he did.”
He dropped to 152 and carried a 14-16 record into the Northwest Oregon Conference district tournament at Canby. He won his first match, but then he lost a 6-2 decision to top-seeded Thomas Marquez of Canby in the semifinals.
Sprecher lost again to Canby’s Peter Sansone in the consolation semifinals, but then had an opportunity to wrestle back and responded with first-round pins against Hillsboro’s Aden Ellis and Centennial’s Ilya Yurko to clinch the league’s fourth and final berth into the state tournament.
“Qualifying for the state tournament is something that feels honorable because it’s something that you have to earn,” he said. “You can’t buy your way in or cheat your way in. You have to earn it.”
Sprecher sports a shaggy head of dark hair nowadays. At this time last year, he didn’t have a hair on his head and he was still more than a month away from his final round of chemotherapy.
It was a tough time for him. And for his parents, too.
Traci and Dean Sprecher knew that something wasn’t right with Austin’s health during the summer of 2021. Their son’s symptoms included severe skin rash, weeping lesions, unexplained fever, weight loss, drenching night sweats, and elevated heart rate. They took him to see doctors, but none of them suspected the problem was cancer.
That went on for more than three months.
“It was very frustrating not knowing what was wrong for so long, taking him to doctor appointments and trying to push to get answers, but never really getting any,” Traci said. “He’d go to school and he’d call me and ask me if he could come home because he just didn’t feel good.
“He was feeling bad enough that he started taking his own temperature. One time, he said, ‘Mom, I’ve got a temperature of 100-something. So, I took him to the doctor and they were all concerned about COVID. And I was like, ‘OK, take your COVID test, but I want a chest x-ray just to rule out pneumonia.’”
Desperate, Traci took her son to Kaiser Permanente Urgent Care in Beaverton for a chest x-ray on Oct. 18. The doctor who looked at the x-ray didn’t like what he saw and referred the Sprechers to Doernbecher for a CT scan. The CT scan confirmed what the x-ray had revealed — a tumor.
Tough news for the parents of a 16-year-old high school junior.
“When your kid comes to you and says, ‘I have this pain in my chest,’ you think if you send him to the doctor, they’re going to figure it out,” Traci said. “And then when they don’t and you find out later that it’s cancer, then you beat yourself up for not pushing harder than you did. And even though you feel that you did the best that you could, it’s still hard not to beat yourself up.
“I also had friends tell me that I had to put on my big-girl pants and I had to stop crying in front of Austin. I needed to show him that we weren’t afraid and that I needed to be strong for him. And, so, I just had to give it to God and say, ‘Thy will be done.’”
Dean took the same approach.
“When Austin was diagnosed with cancer, all I did was pray for him,” he said. “I had this overwhelming confidence that God was going to take care of him, and … here he is at the state tournament.
“Even when he wrestled at the district tournament, I didn’t pray for him to win. I prayed for God’s will to happen. And then Austin winning his last two district matches the way he did, pinning both guys in the first round? That was just amazing.”
Sprecher opened the state tournament against top-seeded Ethan Dunigan of Central. Dunigan dominated the match but failed to score a pin and he had to work into the third period before securing a 17-1 technical fall.
In his first consolation match, Sprecher opened an 8-1 lead over No. 8-seeded Aidan-Michael Pangelihan of Churchill and then put the Lancers’ sophomore on his back with 39 seconds remaining in the second round.
Sprecher’s state tournament then came to an end when he dropped a 7-3 decision to Corvallis senior Gavin Hale.
“I’m really happy just that I could make it to this point this year, especially considering where I was at this time last year,” Sprecher said. “I’ve always wanted to be here. I didn’t make it my freshman year or my sophomore year, and I couldn’t my junior year, so I’m just happy to be here.
“I didn’t really expect much, but all these people watching, wrestling on such a big stage with 12 mats … I just loved it. I think I wrestled pretty well. I got a good amount of sleep in, I ate right, and I gave it all I’ve got. I almost had that guy in the third match, but then I didn’t and that’s just how it goes. I’m satisfied.”
Sprecher, who turned 18 in December, is currently in “complete response” for his type of cancer. That’s not to say that his cancer has been completely eradicated or that he is in “remission.” It’s that he is in “complete response” to the treatment and will need to have either an x-ray or a CT scan every three months to see if anything has changed.
He had his last x-ray taken in January and his next CT scan is scheduled for April.
“We’re beyond over-the-moon proud of him for where he came from last year,” Traci said. “I’m so proud of him for not giving up and making the most of his opportunity to wrestle again.”