You hear about it all the time in sports plagued by low participation numbers — the need to get children involved at a younger age and teach them the basics sooner.
In the case of the resurgent Highland Park wrestling program, such efforts are starting to pay off. The Scots introduced the sport at Highland Park Middle School four years ago and are now seeing results translate to the varsity level.
HP was once a state power, earning several individual and team championships, but had slipped in both quantity and quality of wrestlers by the time Tim Marzuola returned as the program’s head coach in 2013.
So Marzuola, who coached at HP for 25 years prior to a six-year stint in South Carolina, launched an effort to build depth and experience at the middle-school level.
The HPMS program began in 2014 with 25 athletes combined in both grades and has almost doubled since then. And at Highland Park High School, the 15-wrestler team Marzuola coached four years ago is now numbered at 40.
“We’re getting the program built back,” Marzuola said. “I think we’re on a good pace to create depth in our weight classes.”
HP junior Aidan Conner, who won a Class 5A state title in the 195-pound weight class last spring, was among those in the inaugural eighth-grade class at HPMS — although it wasn’t his first exposure to the sport.
Most middle schoolers are newcomers, however, which is why the focus is on building a foundation of fundamentals and beginner techniques. That way, those who stick with wrestling are acclimated by the time they reach high school.
“It gives these kids two years of experience that other freshmen around the state aren’t getting,” said HPMS wrestling coach Tyler Williamson. “We’re just trying to build interest and build confidence.”
Williamson, who also is an assistant football coach at HPMS, said wrestling offers another athletic outlet for students who perhaps don’t possess the skills or physical attributes for football, but still have a competitive drive.
“It helps a lot with physical strength, mental strength, and stamina,” said HPMS eighth-grader Spencer Bell. “Originally I did it just to get better at football, but [since] I started I really enjoy wrestling. It started as a workout, but now I want to compete and win.”
The HPMS team generally practices four times per week and competes in about eight meets during the season, including a middle-school state tournament for those who qualify. But results aren’t the top priority.
“I don’t even think most of the kids keep track of their records,” Williamson said. “We’re not concentrating on what the final result is. We’re concentrating on learning from mistakes and getting better.”