Reversal of fortune: Wrestling’s future looking bright in Polk County

Two years ago, a day similar to Saturday would have been unimaginable for local wrestling.

Polk County trekked to Robbinsville for the annual James Orr tournament with a handful of team members with 20 or more victories this season, that group helping the Wolverines win 16 dual matches to date.

Meanwhile, in Hendersonville, members of the Wolverine Wrestling Club took part in the Bearcat Bash tourney, with a few wrestlers from Polk County Middle’s 5-5 team slated to compete as well.

Two years ago, Polk County was in the midst of a season with one dual-match win while Polk County Middle sat mired in a losing streak that would last almost five years. There was no youth wrestling club, and the sport’s future in the county seemed murky, at best.

The arrival in 2018 of Adam Dedmon as Polk County’s head coach began a series of events that led to days such as Saturday, with the expectation of bigger and better ones to come.

Wrestling, in Polk County, has scored a reversal.

Russell Wilson, right, oversees a growing Wolverine Wrestling Club

Hang around wrestling mats long enough and you’ll inevitably hear coaches telling competitors to “build a base, build a base.”

That’s exactly what Dedmon knew he had to do when he took over Polk County’s program – create a foundation that would eventually strengthen both the middle school and high school programs.

So he reached out to Jerry Cox, who had just finished his first season as Polk County Middle’s head coach, and Russell Wilson, who agreed to launch the Wolverine Wrestling Club for elementary school-age competitors, and the trio hatched a vision.

“All of actually met at the beginning and decided that was a route we was going to take to try to build wrestling here at Polk County,” Dedmon said. “And that’s just taking off and growing. With the youth league they have, that’s a great feeder program for Polk County High School. And then I know Coach Cox is doing a great job over at the middle school.

“Just getting the more kids out for wrestling that we can will help us grow. That feeder program will help instill the fundamentals of wrestling, and it’s also to have fun, too, so they grow up around the sport and they love it and enjoy it and it’ll be a great sport for everyone.”

WWC currently has 24 wrestlers ranging in age from kindergarteners to eighth graders. The club practices three times a week in the mat room at Polk County High School, which also helps begin to form a connection to the high school program, but could pose a welcome problem soon for the club if it continues to grow.

“I think any time you start a wrestling club and you have kids get excited to wrestle, it gets the coaches excited,” Wilson said. “Last year was our first full year as a youth wrestling club and we had 15 to 18 kids consistently in the mat room. This year we have 20 to 24 kids in the mat room consistently throughout the week. We have been taking 10 to 17 wrestlers to tournaments on and off all season. That is awesome.

“I think the most surprising thing to me is that we have not promoted or advertised the club as much as we could have and we still have 20-plus wrestlers. Unfortunately, due to the size of the mat room, we can’t grow much bigger until we find a bigger space.”

Talk to Dedmon and Cox, and both will stress that they try to incorporate an element of fun at practices and matches throughout their seasons. So too does Wilson with WWC, and he thinks that’s helped fuel the club’s growth.

“We try and make it fun and teach them the basics,” he said “The fun thing about wrestling is it doesn’t matter how big or small you are. You are going to wrestle kids in the same age group and weight as you. This makes it fun and accessible to anyone that wants to give it a try.

“We have 40-pound kids and 130-pound kids all on the same team and cheering for each other. Fortunately we have a great core group of parents that are helping coach this year (Caleb Wilson, Mason Jackson, Alex Wolfe, Ronnie Simpson, Chris Cochran and Joey Madison), which makes it easier for the kids to learn and have fun.”

WWC currently travels to tournaments in the area, but Wilson hopes the continued growth will soon enable the club to host its own event.

“As we continue to grow and have kids develop, the opportunities will continue to grow,” he said. “For the last two years we have had a youth night and the high school and youth club wrestle next to each other in the gym. This is a great experience for the kids and everyone seems to enjoy it.

“The next step will be hosting youth tournaments and hopefully expanding the wrestling facilities. With the growth of the youth, middle school and high school teams, we will need more space to continue to develop the programs.”

Polk County Middle School head wrestling coach Jerry Cox

Polk County Middle won a wrestling match on Jan. 23, 2014. The team didn’t win another until Nov. 28, 2018.

Cox had a message after that triumph: “Not gonna have to wait four years to get another one.”

The Wolverines did have to wait a year, next earning a victory in December to open the current season. But that victory was soon followed by another, then another and now Polk Middle has five wins entering its final two matches of the season.

Perhaps just as importantly, the program has more than 20 wrestlers, a number perhaps impossible to envision in years past when attracting half that number proved a challenge.

“We’ve done a reload of all of the programs,” Cox said. “They brought Adam in, they brought Russell in and they brought me in, and now all the cogs in the system are turning in the same direction.

“We teach the kids how to wrestle, but we’re having fun at the same time. Especially with our younger kids who are going to maybe lose their first several matches, we want to make it fun until they start winning.”

In his first coaching role, Cox has benefitted from having former Polk County head coach Phillip Miller at his side as an assistant as well as the availability of Dedmon and Wilson, all working with the goal of building the sport in the county.

“Our communication is pretty solid,” Cox said. “I’m always going to Adam to discuss things, and Russell will call sometimes and say, ‘hey, I’ve got a tournament coming up, want to send some guys with me?’ Communication is key.

“I know now that if Russell is sending me a sixth grader, he’s already going to know how to wrestle. Both he and Adam are doing a phenomenal job.”

Wilson’s work with WWC will soon reap dividends for Cox not only in experienced wrestlers, but just having more of them. At the middle school level, especially, numbers often mean the difference in winning and losing in head-to-head matches.

“Just like when we wrestled Bethel (a 60-48 Polk win in early January). We didn’t win on the mat, we won because we have more kids out and didn’t have to give up weight classes,” Cox said.

“Just getting the kids out is so important, and that makes it more fun for the team.”

Polk County head wrestling coach Adam Dedmon shouts instructions during a recent meet

The rapid progression of Polk County High’s program – one win two years ago, seven wins last season, 16 wins to date this season – hasn’t fully caught Dedmon off guard. How it has happened has offered a twist or two.

“I knew that if the kids would come in and put in work, we could be headed in the right direction,” he said. “I am surprised that we do have some sophomores right now. . . close to 20 wins. There’s Tori (Strickland), she’s got 21, I believe. Collier (Foster) is over 20 wins and about to reach 30 (and did so Saturday). Satchel McCoy is a sophomore and he’s over 20. Bryson McCraw is over 20 as a sophomore.

“We’re just heading in the right direction. That’s just from putting in work in the offseason and them coming in every day with the mentality they want to win. I think that’s the thing you have to instill in them from day one that that’s what we’re here to do, we’re here to win and teach life lessons in the room and they come in willing to work hard.”

It’s a formula that worked well for Dedmon at Chase, where he built the Trojans into one of the top 2A programs in the state. In seven seasons, he led Chase to five state playoff appearances, including back-to-back 2A semifinal berths in 2016-17. Dedmon coached five individual state champions, more than 20 state qualifiers and also led the Trojans to a second-place team finish in the 2017 individual state meet.

Those experiences, Dedmon said, have been invaluable in his almost-two seasons at Polk County.

“When I first started working at Chase, I was a college wrestler coming out of college and I didn’t really have the coaching experience,” he said. “It took me a while there, it took me about five to six years to build a successful program there.

“(Now) I know what to do, I know what to teach fundamentally, I know how to teach wrestling IQ on a mat. I think I do a better job of getting kids motivated and on the right track wanting to win wrestling matches and understanding the team concept of how to win matches, such as not getting pinned and having numbers and just the team score aspect of it.”

As with the middle school, the team score aspect of matches is often influenced by the depth of the roster. The Wolverines had a shot to pick up a key conference win over Mitchell earlier this season, but saw victory slip away due to forfeits in weight classes they were unable to fill. That problem has surfaced in other matches as well, which is why the work that Wilson and Cox are doing are so vital to the Wolverines’ future.

“I would love to take as many wrestlers as we could get,” Dedmon said. “I would like to see the program at the high school grow to about 40 kids or more. I think that’s very doable. I would like to be in the situation where our backup is willing to step in and qualify for the state tournament, too.

“That’s going to eventually start happening when we get more kids involved. Just the more we keep winning, I think that’s gonna progress and be on that track.”

Polk County’s Preston Burnett finished sixth in the state 1A meet in 2019

The Polk County record book details plenty of challenges for the Wolverine program. Polk hasn’t won a conference wrestling team championship since 2004 or had an individual conference champion since 2012, and only three Polk wrestlers – Jim Ollis, Austin Ollis and Tyler Philpott – have won state championships.

Wilson thinks the day is coming, soon, when those streaks will be afterthoughts in the face of ongoing success.

“Polk County has always had a strong tradition of wrestling and the future is bright,” he said. “We have committed community members and parents that want to see the sport grow. Making wrestling fun at a young age and teaching the basics is our main goal in the youth program. Any time we can graduate wrestlers to the middle school that know the basics, that allows the coaches more time to teach more advanced technique.

“Last year we had two fifth graders, and this year we have five. As we continue to grow, hopefully, Coach Cox will have a full roster of WWC alumni on his team at the middle school.”

One day, perhaps, so will Polk County High School, helping to take a surging program to new heights.

“We’re going in the right direction,” Dedmon said. “The kids are motivated by it and they’re going to continue to work hard, so there’s a lot of bright things to look for in the future of Polk County wrestling.”

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