Highlands wrestling appears healthy after board vote; will compete as independent
Highlands wrestling coach Grant Walters admits it’s almost surreal to see where the team was when preseason conditioning began two weeks ago.
The Golden Rams, whose program came within a school board vote of being eliminated last month, had 41 wrestlers — the most in school history — when conditioning began. Two weeks later, all but one of the wrestlers remain, and Walters said he believes he might see more as the season approaches.
“I think they see what I see, and I think they understand being the largest wrestling team ever in Highlands history is something special,” Walters said. “They can be a part of it.”
In recent years, Highlands’ wrestling program struggled because of a lack of interest. Two years ago, six wrestlers came out for the team, Walters said. That number jumped to 30 at the start of the 2013-14 season, but only 13 wrestlers remained at the end of the campaign.
Because of those problems, Highlands School Board voted last month on whether to suspend the program. The board’s vote was 4-4, leaving the wrestling program intact for the 2014-15 season.
Highlands will compete independent of a WPIAL section this season, as it did last season, but the Rams are making preparations to return to the WPIAL in 2015-16.
“The status this year is it’s going to be very similar to last year,” Highlands athletic director Chuck Debor said. “I contacted the WPIAL offices and made the steps that we need to go through to be placed in a section for next year.”
As an independent, Highlands can compete in dual meets against WPIAL teams and in tournaments but won’t be eligible for the WPIAL team playoffs. The Rams competed as an independent last season, finishing 6-12.
“It’ll never compare to a section feel, where you have dual matches (with) your local rivals — Valley, Burrell,” Walters said. “You’ll never get that feeling doing it as an independent thing. But as a competition level, I think that we hit a lot of hard teams last year and stood our ground pretty well for getting the team together, getting the team started and having to teach kids who had never wrestled before how to wrestle. I think we did excellent.”
Of Highlands’ 40 wrestlers, 36 are freshmen or sophomores, Walters said. Underclassmen Cameron Clark, John Coward, Richard Fox and Kain Toy have stepped up as team leaders, he said.
“This team has the potential to stay together,” he said. “They’re going to be a force two years from now. I love the feeling of having the underdogs, no big standouts. Everybody plays a part. I like that.”
After the turmoil of recent seasons, Walters said he sees a bright future for Highlands wrestling. He said there is an independent junior high program for the first time in four years, while the elementary program also is going strong.
“I’m extremely invested in this program,” Walters said. “We’re going to keep this thing around, and keep it going. And it’s finally actually coming to where we’re getting support from our board, getting support from our new athletic director, and they’re all for it.
“Everything’s starting to come together, and the support we’re getting from everybody is phenomenal.”