Here on Tobacco Road, basketball is life. Each season, fans live, dream, despair, hope, and dies a little, until there’s one team left standing in March.
Out there in that great wilderness beyond the land of longleaf pines, however, are those who actually enjoy or even participate in other indoor activities, forsaking the madness of March for the mats of wrestling, and local devotees are trying to import wrestling interest and enthusiasm into the area. The key: start ’em young.
New local wrestling club N.C. Rams hopes to build a nationally recognized program through instruction and competition. Meeting Sundays at UNC’s Fetzer Gymnasium, N.C. Rams’ high school program began in late November and runs through February. A Little Rams program for elementary and middle school boys and girls meets Tuesday and Thursday evenings through Feb. 2.
Club director Andy Gunning and coach Josh Kindig hope to help young athletes develop core fundamentals – footwork, hand-ﬁghting, stance and motion, head position, escapes and reversals – while also providing advanced training for experienced wrestlers.
N.C. Rams, which evolved from Gunning’s Big Cats wrestling program, now provides a significant increase in mat space as a chartered club with USA wrestling and a charter member of the newly formed Triangle Youth Wrestling League.
Kindig currently trains at the UNC Regional Olympic training site and competed for a spot on the U.S. Freestyle World Team.
“Josh was a two-time Pennsylvania high school state champ, an NCAA finalist at Oklahoma State University … and Junior World Team member, placing fifth at the World Championships,” Gunning notes.
Gunning himself recently took a position on the NC Board of Directors for USA Wrestling.
“Now we’ve formalized our USA Wrestling Triangle Youth Wresting League to include a number of clubs from here, Tarboro, Greensboro, and Greenville, and they wrestle on Sundays, broken down by age and experience,” Gunning explained. “There aren’t medals and trophies – we take a mat we split into four, and everybody gets matches – everybody gets experience. Yes, we keep score, but if a young wrestler gets pinned, he’s on his feet and wrestling again immediately.”
Kindig said the key to growing the sport in this area is to create good habits and a vast menu of moves.
“It’s about fundamentals: position, where your hands are going, keeping your knee over your toes,” he said. “A lot of people miss out on those things when you’re young.”
“It’s important to have a big arsenal of moves too,” he added. “Younger kids may just have one big move. When you’re young, it’s good to get into the habit scoring points and scoring more points. When you get older, it won’t be just that one big move.”
If the youngsters at last Thursday’s Little Rams practice are any indication, the sport is gaining local disciples quickly.
For 11-year old Khalil Suayah, it was a chance to be physical in a way that’s not acceptable anywhere but in the wrestling room.
“It’s not something you’re normally supposed to do,” Suayah said, “but here it’s OK.”
“I get tired here and there,” Luke Moon, 9, said, “but mostly it’s just fun.”
“I think it’s because it’s something so different from (other sports),” said Lillian Wallace, 12, who has also participated in soccer and gymnastics. “Here, you’re not just kicking a ball around or balancing like in gymnastics. I like balancing, but there was no point to the balancing.”
Gunning pointed out that girls were making a stand in local wrestling, as female wrestlers were competing in the 106-pound weight class at both Carrboro and Chapel Hill high schools.
“You have to buy a $15 USA Wrestling card,” Gunning said, “and beyond that, $195 covers the coaching and everything for the entire season, but we’ll pro-rate that cost for anyone starting now. I also (charge less) for siblings. This has never been about trying to make money; it’s about creating a culture to grow the sport.”
Both Gunning and Kindig are looking forward to the potential in 2017 of adding sessions for kids aged 4 to 6 years old.
“It’s all about setting up a pipeline, getting kids exposed to the sport,” Gunning said.
And while it may not rival basketball as “King of the (Chapel) Hill,” organizers are going to the mats to grow the sport, which is why wrestling is getting a hold on more local youth athletes.