Ted Adams has tried to impart a handful of qualities upon his nascent wrestling program since Stevensville High School brought back the sport in 2013. Some – like hard work, physicality and discipline – you might expect after discovering the retired U.S. Marine’s background.
Others are more simple, the kind of things often forgotten by those that dedicate themselves to excelling at such a laborious pastime.
“I remember how grueling wrestling was when I was in high school and I didn’t want it to be that way,” said Adams, who has been heading Stevi’s wrestlers since the Yellowjackets broke a three-decade slumber less than four years ago. “I want it to be fun ... Let’s make this as fun as it can be and those kids will leave here someday and be better people.”
Adams asks his boys to both sweat and smile – it’s a brain chemistry thing, he assured – for him every day. Remember the triumphs and discard the disappointments. Work hard but search for perspective even in defeat.
The nurturing approach was just what the infant program needed, and the successes to be scrap-booked are started to come more often than the alternative.
A team that overachieved to send seven boys to state its first season, the group winning a total of two matches and finishing second-to-last, came to belong just two years later. Perhaps not as a title contender, but a qualifier that demanded its own respect. Four boys placed in the top six in their weight classes and Ben Crews, wrestling at 170 pounds, claimed the school’s first state wrestling title since the program closed up shop after the 1984-85 season.
“We’ve gone from really just thankful to have the program to OK, we have the program, but now we’re here to get some stuff done,” said Crews, now a senior.
Wrestling is an inherently individualistic sport.
Team scores exist, yes, but those points are collected through one-on-one battles where one combatant prevails and the other is left with nothing. It can be a lonely island, the center circle of the square wrestling mat.
“When you go out there on the mat it is you alone trying to beat another person that is completely alone. When you win it’s on you, and when you lose it is on you,” Crews said.
At Stevensville, Adams tried to cultivate a culture that cuts down on that feeling of isolation. Like the best programs, he wants the boys competing as much for each other as for themselves.
It’s a calculated method for a coaching staff focused on the minor points of the program and not just installing takedown techniques. To grow a varsity sport out of nothing, as Stevi attempted to do after the school cut wrestling in the 1980s due to unintended budgetary consequences brought on by Title IX legislation, they had to create an inclusive atmosphere.
Boys who had never experienced wrestling had to want to hit the mats.
For the most part, it’s worked. The Jackets’ numbers are still low for a Class A school with 21 wrestlers on the roster this winter, up from 15 that first day of practice in November 2013. But those who come to daily workouts, still located at their temporary home in the high school cafeteria, experience a closeness that can’t be overlooked.
“Every time you’re going, everyone’s on the corner of the mat,” Crews said. “Every time you win a match, it’s like the whole team takes it up one more level.”
So it was in Billings this past February at the all-class state wrestling tournament. Crews swept his way to a championship with four wins, the clamor in his corner growing with each victory. The climax came as he handled Lewistown’s Wyatt Blythe in a 13-6 decision in the state finals, effectively announcing the return of Stevensville wrestling.
And perhaps the high point in the program’s interrupted history. Crews was not only Stevensville’s first champion in its modern era, he became the Yellowjackets’ first titlist ever.
“It’s his work ethic, but he is such a great scrambler,” said Adams, who wrestled briefly with Crews’s father, Kirk, at the University of Montana before the college also dropped wrestling in 1987. “I think that comes from just having a belief in himself and a tenacity. When it looks like the guy almost has the takedown, Ben is one of those guys that never gives it up. If he can scrap and fight a guy, he does.”
Kirk Crews also serves as Stevi’s assistant coach.
Stevensville placed 12th overall at last year’s state meet with 71 total points. The year before, without Crews in the state lineup, the Yellowjackets won but a single match to total three points and finish 22nd – last place.
Adams knew his boys would take their lumps these first few years. The trick was keeping them encouraged and excited about the long-term goals for the Jackets.
Focus on winning the first takedown, Adams would tell his wrestlers. Better yourself in this moment and become better prepared for the next one.
“It’s given them a focus,” he explained. “Win the moment. Don’t worry about if you’re winning the whole way through.”
Stevensville is finally a veteran club with 10 seniors this year, including a couple non-traditional competitors. Jordan Thomas (205 pounds) and Cody Coleman (heavyweight), both members of the Stevensville boys’ basketball team until this season, came out for wrestling their final years of high school.
“I didn’t expect to sit around. They work hard and they have a lot of fun too,” Coleman said. “Everybody is really close and every time we do something good, it’s a big deal.”
But the Yellowjackets are hoping to make success a little less noteworthy and more expected. With two state placers back from last year’s team (Crews and 182-pounder Jerry Cassidy) and another mending from a football injury (Mason Griffin, 182), Stevi is aiming at improving its state placing yet again.
And impressing upon the next generation of Yellowjackets the values that have got them this far.
“It’s up to us to take that step and lead those younger kids,” said Cassidy, last year’s Western A Divisional champ as a junior who took fifth at state. “Push them to be as great as we want them to be – show them what they can be.”