Success that breeds success

Sunday, January 20, 2002

Jackson wrestlers combine work, wins, dedication to build program's legacy

JACKSON, Mo.

In the basement of the Jackson Multi-Purpose Building, one of the state's premier wrestling programs holds another relentless practice.

There's no shortage of sweat, weary muscles and gasping breath. There's plenty of barking instruction from the coaching staff spiced with critique, exhortation and praise:

"When you're tired you make mental mistakes. Focus!"

"Fifteen second guys, work!"

"Don't let him rest!"

"Fish hook. Snap! Snap! Finish with a high C."

"Make him carry weight. You don't rest, he don't rest. You wear him down."

"Nice shot, Ricky. Outstanding. That's what I want."

Most of the faces are the same color as the mats and walls -- Indian red.

They go from one drill to another, paired with teammates as coach Steve Wachter clocks each drill. They take short breaks for such things as a quick walk around the room or while spilled blood is wiped from the mat.

The practices average two-and-a-half hours. It's just part of a day that sometimes begins with running at 7 a.m., weight lifting in a class and more lifting and rope climbing after practice.

Jackson heavyweight Luke Wade trumps all his teammates when he talks about the rigors of being an Indian wrestler.

"The toughest thing I've been through next to basic training is wrestling," said the Jackson senior, who spent part of last summer in boot camp for the National Guard.

"It is a very grueling, tough sport for tough people," said Wachter.

While the work is hard, no one can argue the results, recorded on the walls of the practice room.

In a school that excels in most sports, wrestling is arguably Jackson High's most successful program. Surprisingly, the 1977 wrestling squad, of which Wachter was captain, is the only state championship team the school has produced over the past 50 years. The Indians have had nine wrestlers crowned state champs.

The program placed fourth in the Class 4A state championships in two of the past six years, own a 243-34-2 dual record since 1970 and have a junior varsity team that has won 102 consecutive duals.

The program has won the respect of its peers.

"You like to wrestle Jackson because they're a top team and that's what you're striving to be," Sikeston coach Chris Hodgkiss said after the Indians thumped his squad 55-14 Thursday, improving to 6-1 in duals despite their youth -- four freshmen and two sophomores are in the lineup.

"They're where we want to be," Cape Central coach Josh Crowell said. "It's a phenomenal program."

Grit from the pulpit

Wachter, coach for the past eight years and a member of the staff for 20 years, preaches "grit" to his wrestlers, an attribute he bestows to such state powers as Ste. Genevieve and Farmington, two fellow SEMO Conference schools with which the Indians regularly butt heads.

"We always say wrestling is not for the weak of body and weak of mind," Wachter said. "You have to have a lot of grit in you. You have to be able to work hard and practice hard and do it over a duration of four months, and that weeds out a lot of people."

And the Indians coach schedules all the grit he can find. They wrestle in two of the four toughest tournaments in the state with eyes on the ultimate goal -- the state tournament.

"We kind of throw our kids in the grinder," Jackson athletic director Kevin Bohnert said. "As far as competition and tournaments, he wants in the toughest tournaments we can find. Sometimes it worries me, not so much about injury, but as far as their confidence."

According to his wrestlers, Wachter practices what he preaches.

"He never backs down," said senior Seth Harrell, 19-1 this year in the 215-pound division. "He's never too easy. That's what you need in this sport. He pretty much coaches his hardest to make us work our hardest."

Start 'em young

A modest Wachter credits his coaching predecessors Paul Webber and Bruce Thomas, varsity assistants Jerry Golden and Jeff Scott, eighth-grade coaches Neil Glass and Matt Wendel, junior coaches and everyone but the wood-carved Indian on Main Street.

"No program can be successful by one coach," Wachter said. "Probably the reason this wrestling program is successful is because you have a community that supports it."

Wachter, who ran the Optimist program for about 15 years before handing the reins to Wendel, said the town has about 30 Optimist coaches and a dozen AAU coaches. The Optimist program, started in the late '70s, numbers 240 players in grades K-6. After sixth grade, the top wrestlers are encouraged to become members of the traveling AAU/USA team, which was started about eight years ago. Wachter believes the traveling team has played a role in Jackson's recent success at the state level.

Harrell traces his wrestling origin to first grade. So does senior 140-pounder Ricky Feiner, who placed sixth at the state meet last year at 135.

Wade and all-state 152-pounder James Love, who placed third in the state as a junior, began wrestling in seventh grade.

Freshman 130-pounder Cody Rouse was a state champion on the AAU/USA team. Sophomore 112-pounder Brock Howard is another young star in the Indian program, placing sixth at state in 103 last year as a freshman. Nearly all of the other Indian wrestlers have fared well in youth organizations.

And in Jackson, they not only start early, they never stop. In practice, Wachter and his assistants sometimes pair off against their wrestlers. Last week, Travis Reiminger, an undefeated state champion in 1997, returned to his alma mater to help at wrestling practice.

"We have a lot of graduates who were real good come back and work with us," Harrell said. "It helps a lot. It's kind of like that on an everyday basis. We have new people coming in."

Will he be a part of the chain that bonds past and present?

"I can see myself coming back and wrestling," said Harrell. "I've been doing it my whole life. I'd be a part of wrestling again."

jbreer@semissourian.com

(573) 335-6611, extension 124

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