In a room filled with plaques from corner to corner, one sticks out. Maybe it is because it glimmers compared to the others, which have collected dust over time. Maybe it is because it is the very last piece of hardware hanging on the white wall with the black and green trim.
Or maybe, just maybe, what is printed on the plaque is the reason it is so different from the others. It reads simply: FRIENDSHIP CHRISTIAN INVITATIONAL. 1ST PLACE.
The award is from 2005 — the last year the Hillwood High School wrestling program won a team trophy of any kind. Four years later, the Hilltoppers’ main priority isn’t winning another one. Not yet anyway.
On a Friday afternoon, less than three weeks before Hillwood’s first match against Friendship Christian on Dec. 3, 18 teenage bodies hit the mats in Hillwood’s spacious wrestling room adjacent to the main doors of the high school. When everyone is present (some were battling illness or injury and others were off practicing with the marching band or for the school play) the Hilltoppers have 25 wrestlers.
And that's not bad for a program that disbanded a year ago and had to go shop for a new coach this year.
Didn't make it
Even though Evan Castellano knows it wasn’t his fault, he can’t help but feel a little guilty about last year.
“I guess part of that was my fault because I was ineligible,” said Castellano, now a junior and co-captain for Hillwood.
Due to poor grades his freshman year, Castellano, was ineligible to participate in any athletic contests the first semester last school year. He wouldn’t be able to compete in a match until January.
But the Toppers didn’t make it out of 2008.
“We had already gone through all of our practices (when) the athletic director called everybody into his office and told us this season was cancelled,” Castellano said. “It was pretty depressing.”
Metro Schools requires that a member school has eight active weight classes, which is more than half of the total number of weight classes (14), but that would mean that two wrestlers couldn't be in the same weight class. Even then, a school would be forfeiting six matches at each competition.
“If you go against somebody (in a dual match) that has 14 and you are forfeiting more than six weights then it is not fair to your opponent either. Because they have prepared for you and they don’t even get to wrestle half of their team,” said Scott Brunette, who has served as the Metro Schools Athletic Director for the last 18 years. “The idea is that we want as much participation as we can. You have to have minimum standards in everything.”
Still, there is a grace period.
“We allow some time to get to that point” of eight active weight classes, Brunette said. “It is up to the principal to make decisions on whether he thinks he can get that number out.”
Barely a month into the season last year, Hillwood had eight wrestlers but could muster just six active weight classes.
“My season was like 5-2 and then they cut us,” said Eric Bullock, who is a senior captain this winter. “I was like ‘Whoa. What happened?’”
Taking a leap
For Jody Duncan, accepting the job as Hillwood's new wrestling coach wasn’t an easy decision for him. After all, he was coaching at Nashville Christian, his alma mater. It was the school he represented in 1994 when he finished second at state — the same year he was the team’s only wrestler.
And last year the Eagles were having their own problems with numbers — just three wrestlers and Duncan was serving as volunteer head coach.
Soon after retired teacher Michael Henderson decided not to come back for another year to coach wrestling at Hillwood, athletic director Ron Sparkman contacted Duncan about the position in August.
If Duncan left Nashville Christian the program there, it would most likely dissolve. But even though Hillwood was offering a paid head coaching position, there was no guarantee that the Toppers would triple in size or that they wouldn’t struggle to get bodies out again.
Still, Duncan “knew” he had to take that leap.
“I just knew that if I turned this down and in a couple years Hillwood was the powerhouse wrestling school that they were 10 years ago I would kick myself in the butt , thinking, ‘Man, that could be me over there, building that program,’ ” he said.
Duncan came to Hillwood and Nashville Christian did indeed disband. He was hopeful the two schools could work out a cooperative program where the Eagles’ wrestlers could compete for the Toppers. But, according to Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association rule, at least one of the two schools must not have had a team for the last five years.
With his focus now on Hillwood, Duncan hit the school hard. Though he keeps busy with a full-time job as a commercial salesman for ADS Security, he found time to set up shop in the school cafeteria during a total of four lunch periods in September and October. There he tried to sell the program and recruit youngsters.
It worked — the Toppers’ roster currently consists of 18 freshmen.
Turnout like that was what Sparkman was hopeful for when he hired Duncan. When Sparkman and executive principal Steve Chauncey pulled the plug on the wrestling program last year, they looked at it as a temporary solution only.
“We just went ahead and made the decision fairly early in the season to scrap it for the year, always with the intent of bringing it back this year,” Sparkman said. “We took some heat from some people over doing it. But you aren’t going to make everybody happy with all your decisions.
“We didn’t want to do it but we made that choice… with the intent of bringing it back this year if we could find a good coach, who was energetic and able to get some kids out. That’s what we have been able to do.”
Even though his roster of 27 has dropped to 25, Duncan is optimistic the numbers will stay up.
“This 25 I’ve got right here are all committed,” he said. “Every single one of them.”
Trouble no more
One of those is Carter Jessup who knows a little something about how quickly one can fall in trouble, even at a young age.
He saw it firsthand with his older brother, who dropped out of Hillwood a couple years ago after falling into a hole that included skipping class and doing drugs. Jessup himself had flirted with those same problems. That is why he has gravitated toward wrestling.
“This is my babysitting,” said Jessup, a 15-year-old sophomore at Hillwood who is also practicing for the school’s spring production of Footloose. “(Wrestling) is my second mom. I’ve seen what doing all these drugs, partying 24/7 with all your friends… I’ve seen what that does to your school, I’ve seen what that does to your body and I’ve seen what that does to your reputation.
“I learned it just wasn’t the way to go. There is more glory here,” he said.
That is why Jessup and the few returners from last year’s squad, such as Castellano and Bullock, tried to spread the word about the wrestling team and recruit.
Just as their new coach did, they saw a renewed interest in the sport. How it declined isn't clear, but nobody is looking back or dwelling on it. Duncan points to a generation filled with video games and new technology spurting up every other day as the culprit.
From the student standpoint, Jessup says those outside of wrestling have a misconstrued perception of the sport.
“If anybody says wrestling is a girly sport, we’ll say ‘I’ve seen guys get broken noses,’” Jessup said. “What is girly about it?”
Sparkman says wrestling across the board is just suffering, for whatever reason.
“It is a sport, especially across Nashville, that is declining in numbers. If you look at the other public high schools, their numbers are down also,” he said. “Why that is, I have no idea. I don’t know if kids are more interested in basketball and other stuff. It has been a sport that has been on the decline. I know, once here, (wrestling) was kind of one of the bread and butter sports. It was a very successful program in the past.”
And Sparkman, Duncan and the current Hilltoppers are trying to get it back to that point. Assistant coach Curt Stacy, who has been with Hillwood for nine years and serves as the school’s exceptional education department chairman, says the direction of the school in general has taken a turn for the better in recent years. He believes that stems from an administrational change when Chauncey took over last year.
“It just seemed that there was a lack of organization across the whole school. It is not anybody one person in particular, but I think that it was just different administration styles,” he said. “This year is the first year I can say probably in about four or five years that I feel there is actually a very organized, orderly system put in place.”
Rebuilding a history
That attitude has trickled down to sports like wrestling. Feedback from parents and administration have been mostly supportive and efforts have been made to make sure the sport prospers. Efforts like bringing back the Hillwood Invitational.
One of the more popular tournaments in the area for a long time, the Hillwood Invitational would annually bring in 20 schools. But last year when the program disbanded there was no tournament. The school won’t have the tournament this year either but next year they hope to start it back up as the new chapter of Hillwood wrestling blossoms.
“That was one of the more prominent wrestling tournaments in the Nashville area, historically. It was also a good moneymaker for us,” Sparkman said. “We just kind of want to get our feet on the ground before we jump off into that next season.”
It seems the theme this year for the wrestling program is “Just Grow.” No lofty team goals. No pressure to win. Just being out there on the mat is a victory in itself.
“This is perfect,” Duncan said. “We may not win a team match this year but I don’t care about that. We’re building a program.”