By Brian Paglia
The work began immediately for Jeremiah Walker when he was promoted to head coach of Forsyth Central’s wrestling team in February.
Coaching staff? He had none.
The checklist was long, but Walker made it even longer. He let wrestlers design new warm-up uniforms and singlets. New scoreboards and padding were installed in Central’s practice facility.
"Everything is a new image," Walker said.
But beyond the cosmetic changes, Walker had more significant decisions to make. Where did he want Central’s program to go after a few lackluster seasons? What would be the Bulldogs’ ultimate goal?
"The ultimate goal," Walker said, "is absolutely, 100 percent to win state championship titles."
With that, Central has embarked on a unique season. Walker is trying to revamp a program that was the county’s standard as recently as the 2007-08 season, when the Bulldogs won their third straight county championship. Central hasn’t won one since.
Last season, the Bulldogs failed to qualify for the state duals and had just two wrestlers make the traditional state tournament. The last Central wrestler to place in the top four at traditionals was Randy Bolinger, who was runner-up at 215 pounds in 2011.
In stepped Walker.
Expectations are balanced. The Bulldogs want to end their drought from the state duals and qualify numerous wrestlers to traditionals.
But Walker also knew Central’s roster would be full of young wrestlers, many that are completely new to the sport. Six wrestlers in Bulldogs’ the starting lineup are first-timers – four freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. Central has only two seniors.
"I came into this season with the understanding that we would be extremely young," Walker said. "We would have a completely different team dynamic, and a lot of these guys have been learning."
Included in the revamp was Central’s practice regimen. Walker overhauled it, so that at the start of the year Central had 54 wrestlers. Now, the Bulldogs have 30.
"That in itself tells you the difficult of the sport," Walker said.
The handful of returning wrestlers has noticed a difference in the team this season.
"There’s a lot of excitement and people are eager to learn," junior Nathan Kistler said. "You can see peoples’ eyes opening.
"All the first years are growing up a lot faster than I thought. It takes them a full year just to get things down, but these guys are getting it down within a month or two."
Kistler is the lone returning state qualifier from last season. The other, Connor Finn, moved to North Carolina.
So at a recent afternoon practice, Kistler is safe when Central starts to do a "wrestle off." Junior varsity and varsity wrestlers in the same weight class go head-to-head for the varsity spot. This time, it was Cole Devlin and freshman Noah Lowe.
The two wrestled. Walker refereed. The rest of the Bulldogs either lay down or kneeled along the edge of the mat in a line to watch it all unfold – another addition Walker has made to the program’s atmosphere.
Results have been incremental. As a team, Central finished second at the River Ridge Duals and defeated area opponent Northview for the first time in six years.
"It’s the most excited I’ve ever seen wrestlers," Walker said. "And that was just against Northview. So they’ve got the spark."
Individually, Walker said he’s seen great things from Lowe, freshmen Trevor Cleveland and Sebastian LeGarra at 170 and 182 and sophomore Larry Moody has improved at 120. Walker said five or six wrestlers could qualify for traditionals this season.
"We want to make it to state," Kistler said, "but when we make it to state, we want to go all out."