Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
Sometimes what appears to be a step backward is the best way to keep things moving forward. That philosophy was what had long time Science Hill wrestling coach Jeff Price in a wrestling room full of 12- to 14-year-olds the morning of Dec. 31.
The man who has coached four individual high school state champions, and led the Toppers to team finishes as high as third at state, patiently drilled the Liberty Bell middle schoolers on the finer points of single-leg takedowns and other wrestling basics.
Price and Bill McKinney, who coached Science Hill’s varsity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, are three years in to building for their successors an advantage they never fully enjoyed – a strong feeder program.
“It’s what the program needs, and it’s a good way for me to step back some,” Price said as two dozen kids worked on the mats. It is all about starting wrestlers early and getting them accustomed to a system and coaching styles that are as consistent as possible from elementary school on up, he added.
“The longer this goes, the more that freshmen are going to be ready for varsity.”
Eventually, Science Hill teams will be more ready to challenge schools from the state’s wrestling hotbed – the Chattanooga area – who have consistently thwarted Northeast Tennessee’s dominant program when state rolls around. The Liberty Bell team traveled to Cleveland, outside Chattanooga, for a major middle school tournament in early December, “to see where we stacked up,” Price said.
“We finished second. Cleveland killed us.”
Closer to home, the Patriots have been unstoppable this year, even as more middle schools have fielded teams. The lone loss to Cleveland leaves the team 16-1 heading toward the season’s close. Saturday, hosting a six-team tournament at the Topper Palace, Liberty Bell produced five individual champions, five runners up and four third-place finishers.
Liberty Bell scored 267 points. Runner up Vance (Bristol) had 184 points, with Greeneville Middle placing third with 164. Patriots Tyler Seeley (83 pounds), Tre Horton (131), Nick Lane (141), Chase Diehl (151) and Ahmik Watterson (165) all were undefeated on their way to individual championships.
McKinney returned to coaching wrestling in 2011. A physical education teacher at Liberty Bell (Price teaches English at Science Hill), he has recruited many of the team’s wrestlers. He helped Price and Jimmy Miller, now Science Hill’s head coach, with junior varsity that first year. Two seasons ago, he said, he and Price, “decided we were going to try to build a middle school program.”
About 16 kids turned out for the 2012-2013 season. There are about 30 this year. Some have the added advantage of having wrestled in the “Admirals” club program, which starts kids in grade school and is coached by Martin Fry. Fry, the middle school coaches and Miller and Caleb Myers at Science Hill all are working to coordinate their coaching methods.
“As far as basic technique – takedowns, how you wrestle from on top, on bottom, and things like that it makes a lot of difference,” McKinney said. “It’s always good, just like in other sports, if the younger programs are doing something similar to your high school program and teaching the same thing.”
Johnson City isn’t the only place in the Tri-Cities where wrestling programs are expanding into the younger ranks. Price said competent coaches have begun to settle in at a number of area middle schools, allowing for the same kind of consistent training Johnson City kids are getting.
“The growth of middle school wrestling will make the high school teams more competitive and will make our region more competitive,” Price said. “This will better prepare everyone for competition at the higher levels, namely state. Anyone who doesn’t get middle school wrestling going or doesn’t do it right is going to get left even farther behind.”
Price, conversely, expects his recent labor of love to yield positive results at Science Hill in years to come. The team was knocked off its perch atop the region this year (see related story below) but the veteran coach expects that to be a temporary situation. Wrestlers like Diehl (who was unbeaten on the Cleveland trip), Seeley (a seventh-grader) and others will vie for varsity spots as freshmen, Price predicts.
Warming Price’s heart was the suggestion of one Patriot as the team headed into a Christmas break with four scheduled practices. “One of the kids said, ‘well, we should just practice every day and get better,’ and so we put on two more days of practice,” said Price, who has coached in Johnson City for 16 years now. As the young athletes drilled under a banner showing the 49 Toppers who have placed at state (37 during the Price era), Price mused hopefully on the
prospects of Science Hill wrestling someday exceeding even the heights to which he coached it.
“This is getting to be kind of a life’s work thing for me. We can bring these kids in here to practice and show them those names on that board, and show them that 2009-10 team and say ‘that’s the best team that’s ever been through here,’ and ‘these are people who have placed in the state,’ and start getting them where that’s what they want to do.”
Liberty Bell wrestles at the Greeneville Invitational Saturday, before closing out its season by hosting the conference duals Monday at the Topper Palace.