It is a new day down in the basement of Owen High School, where for the past three weeks the wrestling team has been preparing for the new season in its maroon and white practice room.
This year is a transitional one for the Warhorses, led by a young, new head coach Kyle Higgins. Higgins stepped in when former coach Jeff Foster left the school.
Higgins is no stranger to the sport, having walked onto the wrestling team in college at Campbell University after an all-state high school wrestling career. His perseverance allowed him to start for the Fighting Camels for four years.
The energetic new coach is also quite familiar with his team, having coached many of the young wrestlers at Owen Middle School during the 2013-14 season. That experience has been valuable for Higgins, whose early focus was on recruiting wrestlers.
“Before we started, when I would come by, guys seemed excited that they knew me and a little bit about my background and personality,” Higgins said. “The guys that wrestled for me at the middle school seemed pretty excited that I took the position, so I think that helps with bringing in guys that were kind of on the fence about whether they would wrestle or not.”
Senior Chance Watkins wrestled for Owen last season when the size of the roster was down significantly and the team was forced to forfeit many of the matches. Higgin’s positivity and energy have brought new life to the program, Watkins said.
“It’s a lot different this year, but he’s brought such a different perspective,” Watkins said. Higgins is “young, fresh, and he knows what he’s talking about and he makes sure that everybody knows what they’re doing at all times.”
Higgins has gotten the team roster up to about 18 wrestlers, which has helped the team remain competitive in the team’s three meets so far this season.
“My hope is that when everyone gets to the weights they should be at then we will have plenty to fill all of the weight classes,” Higgins said. “The challenge will be guys who are at the same weight right now kind of spreading out to fill the line-up.”
Higgins points to Watkins, the team’s lone senior, as one of the guys on the roster who has set a good example for the younger wrestlers.
“He’s a really hard-working guy. He’s an ROTC kid and obviously has lots of discipline,” Higgins said. “He loves to be out there and has a lot of potential, but more than anything he leads in the wrestling room. He never goofs off, and he’s always working hard.”
Junior Thomas Neal and freshman Tanner Riddle have also stood out as leaders, Higgins said.
“(Neal) has really stood out as someone who wants to get practice going,” he said. “He comes in and washes the mats before I’m even able to get to the gym. He’s another one that goes really hard during practice too.
“And Tanner Riddle, who wasn’t able to wrestler last year as a freshman, wrestled for me at the club level and at the middle school,” Higgins continued. “If he can stay healthy this year then he should surprise some people.”
The leadership and strong work ethic of the team should be enough to reach some of the goals Higgins has set for his group.
“I would like to see us improve upon last year’s number of team wins,” he said. “And I would really like to see us take two, three, four or more to the state tournament. That’s one of my big goals.”
More team wins this season would be a great start for Higgins’ coaching career. But that number will not be used as a serious evaluation tool. His primary focus will be on the progress each wrestler shows.
“It’s hard in your first year to judge off of wins and losses,” he said. “We’re going to look at the things we need to improve on after our first few matches and get to work on that.”