Kids who grow up playing youth sports learn key values that lay the groundwork to be successful students and members of the community: Teamwork, sportsmanship, graciousness in victory and defeat, and hard work, to name a few.
The young grapplers at the Mingus Mountain Wrestling Club are pushed to learn those and a bit more, all the while taking some licks along the way.
“It demands a lot from a kid’s confidence, because you are constantly being beat up and you’re trying to convince the kids that being beat up repeatedly is worth it,” Muckers head coach Klint McKean said. “And that can be a tough sell, but the value of it for those that do buy in is incomparable to any other sport .... because of that toughness and that strength and that willingness to do uncomfortable things.”
Entering the high school’s new wrestling room on Wednesday, Dec. 20, an unsuspecting visitor would be greeted with whistles and cheers — and the muggy, stifling humidity and 80 degree temperature. Working through the standing crowd, one would imagine they would see a pair of strong, singlet-adorned high schoolers grappling on the bright red mats.
But suddenly, in fact, there are two elementary-school-aged boys, one working to defeat the other. Not to be deceived, though; some of their moves appear to be of the same skill level as the big boys.
Cottonwood’s up-and-coming wrestlers train in the same place they may one day compete as high schoolers, surrounded by the names of past Mingus state champions and placers. Maybe one day, their name will make it on that wall.
McKean revived the club in the 2012-13 school year, with just 17 members, to coach his young sons after stepping down as the head coach of the Mingus Union High School team. This season he returned to the high school ranks, but remains involved with the younger kids, also known as the Muckers.
Originally started as an offseason high school club by former Marauders head coach Tom Wokash, the current team’s 51 participants range in age from kindergarten to eighth grade.
Four common values make up the pillars that every one of the Muckers learn: Belief, commitment, one more and fire.
Belief has a quadruple meaning; belief in the wrestler himself, in their training, in their teammates and in their coaches.
Commitment is simple — dedicating themselves to giving their all in the wrestling room every day.
The latter two values are pivotal. One more represents the idea that doing everything once more will pay off. If belief is the mental key and one more the physical key, then fire is the spiritual key. It means finding the ardor to compete day in and day out to get better.
“It’s about doing one more whenever possible, and that one more over a season adds up to a big difference in improvement,” McKean said. “If you do one more of each drill, one more of each sprint, that pays dividends in the long run.
“[Fire] is about having a competitive drive and a passion and desire, and also having fun.”
The Muckers train in two groups: Kindergarten to third grade and fourth to eighth grade. The younger age group learns body control, tumbling and the variety of positions.
With that foundation in place, the older group begins to learn technique and skilled wrestling. It all adds up to create a pipeline for the high school team, a perennial power during the late 2000s that is today rebuilding toward that success.
“In all youth sports, but especially in wrestling, you lose a lot of kids,” McKean said. “The ones that have remained, when they get to high school they’re ready to be on varsity and be competing for state placing.”
Trent Miller, a junior at Mingus, is one of the first to come through and stand out at the high school level. A former Mucker himself, his father Kory is a coach, Miller placed at the Arizona Interscholastic Association Division III state tournament as a freshman and a sophomore.
Coaching with Kory Miller and McKean are Aaron Midkiff, a 1998 alum of Mingus, and Nate Dixon, whose two sons also wrestled.
New to the staff is Jarrod Tavasci, a two-time state champion with the Marauders who also went on to compete at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“[Tavasci] has been doing a great job with the kids, he’s been showing them a lot of new technique,” McKean said. “Some things that I hadn’t shown them previously, so they’re starting to learn some different styles of wrestling.”
At the competitive level, the Muckers have been consistently competitive in Arizona, taking fifth last year, McKean said. Since youth wrestling is all in one division, rather than the four high school divisions, being a top team is a bit more difficult.
Results, though, are secondary to developing the community’s smallest wrestlers on the mat and as people.
“We just try to look at individually getting each of our kids prepared for high school,” McKean said. “Because all of the coaches have sons, and their friends on the team, we’re just trying to raise our kids in a way that will enable them to be self-sufficient, responsible and good citizens when they leave us.”
By the time the Muckers grow up, they will certainly have absorbed what there is to be learned in sports and life — just with a few added scrapes and bruises.