Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at what it takes to build and maintain a high quality wrestling team.
Former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote a book titled “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” In it, Clinton presented her vision for the children of America and the impact individuals and groups outside the family have on a child's well-being.
The same concept can be applied when talking about high school wrestling teams and all that is involved in building, growing and maintaining a winning program. It takes a team of dedicated individuals and groups focused on the singular objective of forging top-notch wrestlers and solid young men ready to lead productive and community-oriented lives when they walk off the wrestling mat for the last time.
The Cleveland High School Blue Raiders wrestling village was started by Duane Schriver — one of the deans of Tennessee high school wrestling — in 1971. Schriver started the Blue Raiders program on a wing and prayer, hired now legendary coach Al Miller and together the duo laid the foundation for what would become one of the most storied programs in the state.
Al Miller was hired by Schriver as an assistant coach in 1973 where he served for six years before taking over the head coaching job and led the Blue Raiders to their first state championship in 1980.
“I think back to 1971 when I came and how far we have come and I am amazed. We came from one 24-square-foot mat in Cleveland/Bradley County to, well I don’t know how many mats there are. The programs, facilities and growth right here in Bradley County is amazing,” said Schriver. “We’ve gotten to the point — and it’s been that way for a while with us in the early years, then Bradley coming in and having their streak and now Walker Valley coming on — where the state wrestling championship has to go through this community. That’s because of all the hard work by all these guys and the great jobs they are doing.”
Schriver and Miller now stay involved with CHS wrestling at the final destination for Cleveland wrestlers at the high school level, assisting head coach Jake Yost and assistant coach Eric Phillips. But, it is a team of dedicated coaches at the beginning and middle stages who guide future Blue Raiders toward their goal of seeing their names enshrined on the Cleveland Wrestling Wall of Fame inside the Jones Wrestling Center.
The journey for Cleveland wrestlers begins at the kindergarten level and moves through the junior high stage before future Raiders wear the singlet of a CHS wrestler.
Yost went a step further, saying not only is it important to have a dedicated coaching staff ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to build a strong program, it also takes a staff of dedicated administration to see to it the pieces of the puzzle are found and placed in the right slots.
“There are many facets that go along with being successful at the high school level. Luckily, the administration, coach Phillips, Mrs. O’Brian (CHS principal Autumn), Dr. Ringstaff (Cleveland City Schools Director Martin) and Mr. Collier (Cleveland Middle Principal) have helped us kind of get everybody into the right role that helps us be successful. They helped get everybody in the right position where their strengths are to help us be as successful as we can be. It’s worked out well,” said Yost. “There are a bunch of different facets but it’s all at a point now where it seems to be clicking on all cylinders. I think for a while now it’s been a process of trying to get where we want to be.”
Young wrestlers enter the Cleveland wrestling family as early as kindergarten age where they are introduced to the sport by Higher Calling Wrestling Club coach Josh Boskin who also serves as assistant to CMS head coach Eric Mountain.
“The club’s main focus is grades kindergarten through fifth grade. If they are getting started in wrestling, they see me first,” said Boskin. “After fifth grade, they come to middle school where they get ready to move on to high school.”
Dealing with 5-, 6- and 7-year-old kids can be a difficult enough task in its own right. Boskin’s first order of business is to teach his new pupils to have fun. If a kid isn’t having a good time while learning to wrestle, it won’t be long before potential talent is lost and looking elsewhere for entertainment. He said stealth is a key factor in teaching youngsters without them actually knowing they are learning to wrestle, all while keeping a close eye on fragile feeling and egos.
“We teach the basics of wrestling and do a lot of games that have wrestling skills involved, but they don’t really know they are learning wrestling. They are learning wrestling but having fun at it,” he said.
“Every kid is different. I don’t want any kids to come in and leave with a bad taste in their mouth. After you learn each kid’s personality you kind of learn how to deal with different kids’ emotions. You can be a little harder on some kids and some kids you can’t be. Sometimes you kind of have to, not baby them, but cater to their needs a little more.”
After Boskin’s introduction to wrestling, the young athletes are turned over to Mountain at Cleveland Middle who oversees their progress during this important step in the process. It is Mountain’s job to prepare the middle schoolers for the high school level. Mountain continues the process of teaching Blue Raider wrestling techniques.
“It starts off with the Kids Club. They can start off when they are in kindergarten and move forward. A good foundation can be laid in the fifth grade and we can continue to feed into the middle school program and help them believe in the Cleveland wrestling program while having fun. Winning is good, but we are just building a foundation and sending them on to high school. We want to continue our tradition and build our family from kindergarten all the way up to seniors,” he said.
“We teach Cleveland wrestling as far as technique. Then each level builds on it. The Kids Club kids come in with a good foundation, we build on it then send them up with the core Cleveland wrestling techniques, then the high school builds on that.”
After leaving the middle school family, the wrestlers move on to begin training with their big brothers at Cleveland High School under the watchful eyes of Yost and Phillips.
Phillips, who held the reins as head coach before turning the job over to Yost sits in the assistant coach’s chair while maintaining duties as CHS athletics director. His presence was well established as leader of the Raiders after taking over from former Cleveland coach Heath Eslinger, who now leads the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs wrestling squad.
Phillips is a firm believer in the village raising a child concept when it comes to wrestling — not only by coaches, but by the entire wrestling community inside and outside the halls of Cleveland High.
“You can raise a kid without the village, but the odds of him turning out the way he will turn out when the whole village is involved is slim, slim, slim. We have an entire village, not just our coaching staff,” he said. “If my kids walk around doing something sideways and any parent, coach or teacher around here sees it, I will get a phone call. I get phone calls about all these guys because it’s not just the coaching staff, it’s the entire community that is involved in the raising and nurturing and making sure these kids are becoming who they need to be.”
When it comes to the kids trained by Boskin and Mountain, Phillips expects nothing less than a young athlete well versed in the philosophy of wrestling as well as the philosophy of being a model student and citizen.
“My role has sort of switched now that I am athletics director at Cleveland. I expect from a wrestling front for them to come in well polished and well seasoned. But I also expect them to come in tough and knowing how to behave, how to handle losses and wins. They are down there with Josh and Eric learning the right techniques but they are also learning that being a quality wrestler involves being a quality person,” said Phillips. “They are shaping them at a young age to win with some class and deal with losses. That’s the beauty of wrestling, you are going to lose and you are going to learn to deal with adversity in a way that’s constructive, or a way that’s going to break you. They are going to make sure they are going to learn to deal with adversity in a way that’s constructive.
“So, as an athletics director I am thrilled with the way the program is because I know kids coming through this program are going to be loved, pushed and hammered to do the best in the classroom, the best on the mat and the best in the community. It’s kind of a dream-come-true getting to be part of something so quality.”
Sitting in the head coach’s chair is the young “Daddy” of the Blue Raider family, Jake Yost who not only makes sure his current crop of kids is staying on the straight and narrow on the wrestling mat, but in all areas of life as well.
Yost keeps tabs on his kids from the beginning stages until they walk off the mat as a high school wrestler for the last time.
“I’m involved with every aspect of it to a certain extent. It doesn’t mean I’m doing all the work; I’m definitely not doing all the work. But I’m in contact with Boskin on a daily basis wanting to know what’s going on with the kids program and where we are at. I’m constantly talking to coach Mountain and coach Boskin about the middle school finding out what we need to do to make it better,” he said.
“The most enjoyable part about that is we’ve got a group of guys who enjoy each other and what we are doing. So it’s not as difficult as what you would think. If you are able to get a group of people together like that it makes it easier and more enjoyable. The reason we are able to do that is because our administration has helped us out so much.”
As for “Dean” Shriver, assistant coaches were pretty much unheard of when he began the Cleveland program some 43 years ago. He has watched his family grew from infancy and puberty to adulthood. He is not only proud of the Blue Raiders program but also speaks with pride when talking about how the road to a state championship must go smack dab through three of the best programs in the state.
“Back when I came in, I was it. I didn’t have nine coaches. I was doing all they are doing now with just myself. “Josh is very humble. He doesn’t sing his own praises. Phillips did that also when he was head coach. I like the ‘me, us and we’ situation. It’s all me, us, we and team. I think that is so important. It’s a family and team attitude that brings this team together because the lower level develops what we get at the high school level. Jake has yet to lose a tournament at the district, region and state level. That doesn’t happen. He has already experienced history without even realizing it.”
“The Bradley Club and the Walker Valley club all have their (kids club) programs like Cleveland does. Because of those situations at all three schools is one of the reasons all three schools are in the top five in the state.”