Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series on building and maintaining a high quality wrestling program.
Building a wrestling family takes time, a great deal of time in most cases. And, as it is with traditional families, a wrestling family needs a strong patriarch to head the family and provide the necessary guidance required to oversee the continued growth and maturity essential to a successful program.
That’s where Al Morris, head coach of the Walker Valley Mustangs wresting team, comes in. Morris began his wrestling career at Bradley Central and eventually left to head his own family at Walker Valley. Growth and progress have been slow at times, but the Mustangs have proven more than once they are worthy challengers and hope to finally get the best of big brothers Bradley and Cleveland High School on the mat.
Cleveland assistant coach Duane Schriver said Morris played a pivotal role in the development of wrestling in Bradley County and is happy to see he has gotten the chance to make his own mark as a head coach.
“I’d say Alan Morris may have more to do with it than anything because he started it,” said Schriver of the growth of area wrestling. “He was on the first team Bradley had. He was the first kid to step on the mat for Bradley High School when we helped them get started. He came back and helped (former Bradley wrestling coaches Turner Jackson and Steve Logsdon) build that program for so many years. It was so refreshing for him to get a chance to have his own program and he is doing a heck of a job with it.”
Morris, like any coach in any sport, is happy with the progress but added now is the time for the Mustangs to begin to really step up in their continuing quest to take Walker Valley to the top of the state wrestling charts.
“This will be our 10th season here at Walker Valley and keeping things in perspective, when I look back at when Cleveland was in its 10th year and when Bradley was in its 10th year, I like to say we are comparable to that point. After that it’s apples and oranges because they’ve had enough time to build their programs and win state championships,” said the only wrestling coach the Mustangs have known. It took Cleveland about 15 years or so to win their first state title and it took Bradley maybe about 20. Of course now they are two of the top teams in the state.”
Walker Valley got the individual state championship monkey off their back when Caleb Langford won the Mustangs’ first championship in 2013. Since then, the Mustangs have produced a two-time state finalist in Billy Raulston.
“We are starting to make some inroads. We’ve had state placers over the years from our first year on. We’re moving in the right direction, not necessarily as quickly as we’d like. But it just takes time.”
Keeping the family together and trying to break out of the shadows of wrestling powerhouses Cleveland and Bradley is a daunting task. The Mustangs have reached the threshold on occasion in head-to-head competition with the Big 2, but have yet to score a win in a dual meet, although the Mustangs have finished in front of the Bradley Bears in tournament action.
“That’s what we’ve got to contend with here. We don’t mind, It keeps us on our toes. We know we can’t just go out there and go through the motions — we’ve got to do a lot of work. We’ve got a lot to do to get caught up, but we’re not really looking at it in that aspect, we always want to do the best we can do. We know if the time comes we can say we beat Cleveland or we beat Bradley we are going to be, probably right at the top of the state,’ said Morris.
“We’ve knocked on the door with Bradley and have actually finished ahead of them in tournaments including the region tournament. But we are still looking for that first dual meet win over them. We’ve come close a time or two against Cleveland early on. That’s (beating Bradley and Cleveland) not our ultimate goal, but it’s one of the measuring points. If we happen to beat either one or both of those schools, we will know where we are.”
Morris and the Mustangs are counting heavily on their family of younger wrestlers at the middle school level, led by head coach Andy Morris and Josh Justice, to step forward when the time comes and help push the program to the next level.
The younger Morris volunteered to take over the middle school wrestling program when Ocoee Middle wrestling coach Andrew Hedges moved to Middle Tennessee.
“He (Andy) is pulling double duty and really has a lot on his plate,” said the elder Morris of his youngest son. “I’ve got to do something to help ease his burden a little because he’s got family and is still working on his education. “Although those are areas we feel pretty good about we know we need to keep moving and solidify it. The programs at the other two schools are where they want them, I suppose, and that’s what we are working to try and get.”
Morris and Justice oversee some 80 wrestlers looking to be a part of the Ocoee Middle Colts wrestling family.
“That’s a good problem,” Al Morris said of the high number of wrestlers. “Andy is a good enough coach he is learning to deal with that. He’s young, but he’s learning and does a great job. Ocoee Middle has put out some good wrestlers in the last few years. There is no question about it. The important thing is we make sure they are making their grades in class. I feel like we need to stress that more and more because in the end it’s the education that is going to matter.”
According to his father, Andy is young enough to relate to the wrestlers he manages while maintaining the level of maturity needed to run both the middle school program and the Walker Valley Stampede Wrestling Club. Andy said his experience at the Club level will only help him build and progress the middle school program at OMS.
“This was my first year at the middle school. My sixth graders were my first kids’ club kids that came into middle school that I have had previously. I could really see a difference as the year went on with their progression just because they already had a little bit of a foundation. There were a few older kids who had that as well, but it’s nice to see that everything we’ve done is kind of correlating together now,” he said.
“The kids that really have a desire to get to that next level and want to be successful, you can kind of see who you need to work with on letting them know what the need to know before they reach the high school level. There are other kids that you may have to take a step back and work on more basic stuff. I try to keep core terminology and technique the same as they are going to hear from my dad and coach (Adam) Rains at the high school level.”
The Colts’ coach also stated the most important thing he can teach the kids in his care is how to have a good time while learning how to be young men and future citizens while keeping an eye out for the wrestlers who want to take what they learn as far as they can.
“I want them to first of all make sure they had a good time. If when it’s over they are angry, mad and didn’t have a good time I didn’t do my job. But if they are excited to hopefully go on and put on a blue and gold singlet and compete for a state title, then I think I have done my job,” he said. “There is always that one kid, just like Billy Raulston, who everyone says is not going top make the lineup and winds up being a two-time state finalist. That is the good thing about wrestling. If you really love it and put in the time you can go as far as you want to go.”
The building process begins at the kids club level where Morris begins the process of building the Mustangs wrestling family. Just as it is with the other two kids clubs in town, the main goal of the Stampede Wrestling Club is to let the youngsters have fun while learning how to wrestle.
“The most important thing with the younger guys is to make sure they have fun. We typically start around five-years old. Every once in a while we will have a kid come in around four-years old who will have the attention span to kind of stick to things. It really is about fun,” said Morris. “Up until about the third or fourth grade, is when the you can kind of tell where the kids are, whether they are picking up technique are just coming in to have more fun. But when they are having fun we try to mix in stuff that is teaching them fundamentals and good technique. It’s just kind of happening as they are having fun.”
He said the club is finally getting to the point where there are some veteran wrestlers in the group and tournaments begin to play a part in the development which also leads to hurt feelings on occasion after a tough match.
“With the younger and newer guys we go to beginner tournaments. With the more advanced guys, we take them to more advanced tournaments. We also had a couple of guys qualify for the state tournament this year, which was a big deal for all the younger guys especially since this is only the third year of our club,”
“I try to make sure, even it it’s after a win, I have a smile on my face, them they did awesome and five them a high five. That’s the first thing I do because it takes a lot, especially for a younger guy to step onto the mat in front of a bunch of people, just him with another guy coming after him. That takes a lot of courage. That’s why I think wrestling is a great sport. If you can do that at a young age, when you get older you are going to be all right. I want them to develop a good grasp of how and enjoyable wrestling can be. They shouldn’t be worrying about winning and losing at the kids’ level. That stuff comes as you wrestle. I just want to make sure they are having fun.”
The kids clubs and middle school programs without a doubt play major roles in the success or failure of any given wrestling program at any given school. A support team of assistant coaches and school administrators is vital if advances are to continue. Mustangs coach Al Morris is quick to credit his administrators and top-notch assistant Adam Rains for the current success of the Walker Valley organization.
“Adam is really a quality wrestling coach. He brings a lot of energy and intensity to our program. He is one of my former wrestlers. I got to watch him start from pretty much the bottom of the barrel and rise to state championships and being a college wrestler. Now he is here passing on a lot of his knowledge and expertise to our wrestlers. He is a more than capable coach. He is also fun to be around which makes me feel a lot younger. It helps keep things in perspective when things get frustrating,” said Morris. “I am really fortunate to be here. There are a lot of schools that don’t support wrestling because it’s not one of your “major sports,” but our athletics director Mike Turner and principal Danny Coggin support us. I never feel like we are a third-rate sport. They expect excellence in everything we do at Walker Valley from education to athletics. That is something we all strive for here. Paul Cretton was the AD here and was actually the one who contacted me about the job. Also a great deal of credit goes to Allan Jones and Duane Schriver. Both of those people were very instrumental in helping us get the program here started and helped with the financial support. They were someone I could go to with questions. They were both a big part of getting this program started.”
But as families grow and prosper, there comes a time when the current house simply becomes too small for comfort and newer, more up to date amenities become essential.
“We are at the point in the process where every other school in this community has a really top notch wrestling facility. We, on the other hand, are at the upper part of the gym where we have to roll our mats up after we are finished with them for the day. Cleveland and Bradley have wrestling buildings built through donations as well as Lake Forest,” noted Morris. “We were very fortunate Mr. Spangler at Ocoee Middle had some space with the new addition to the school. It is one of the nicest wrestling rooms in the area. We are going to have to look for a way to upgrade our facilities. Eventually it would be nice for us to catch up with everyone on that.”