KALAMAZOO – Five years ago, Alex Hill and Darrick Parker were assistant football coaches for Loy Norrix High School when an opportunity arose to take over the varsity wrestling program.
“We were told if we applied as co-head coaches, we’d have a pretty decent shot,” Hill recalls. “There weren’t a lot of people lining up to be Loy Norrix wrestling coaches.”
As it turned out, there weren’t many people lining up to be Loy Norrix wrestlers, either.
That first season, Hill recalls there being nine wrestlers on the varsity team – a varsity team needs 14 to fill a lineup, assuming each weight class is covered. Five years later, the numbers are no longer a problem, as Hill and Parker – two best friends from their days rooming together at Olivet College – have built a sustainable program that currently has 24 student-athletes on the varsity roster.
“The first season was rough, only because of the numbers that were within the program,” Hill said. “We were trying to build a culture. Build a program. To do that in an environment that isn’t as wrestling friendly, or as high on wrestling participation, that was difficult.
“We were just trying to pull kids from nowhere,” he said. “We didn’t care what grade they were in, or if they had any experience wrestling. We were just trying to get people out there to try to build up some status or build some excitement about wanting to wrestle in the first place.”
Prior to their arrival, wrestling was largely an afterthought at Loy Norrix.
“Wrestling is not the most popular sport, everyone is growing up at the parks and in the gyms, playing basketball,” Hill said. “Wrestling wasn’t a first thought, second thought, or third thought at a young age. So it’s hard to change their mindset once they come to high school.”
So Hill and Parker got to work, building a program that encourages wrestling at a younger age. They established a youth program for ages 5 to 12, and have the middle school coaches engrained in the program as well.
“We’ve wanted to do it for so long, but with both of us coaching football and wrestling – the youth program runs during our wrestling season – it would just be hard; we didn’t have the time,” Hill said of the youth program. “We finally got someone this year who is heading it up. We’ve got our hands in it a little bit.
“The middle school coaches are involved in our program. They come to practice with us and learn our style, and see what we’re looking for. Incoming freshmen aren’t raw, or doing things we don’t believe in. They know our culture and know what to expect. It’s starting to benefit our high school program, and that will only continue.”
Aside from the growth in numbers, the Knights wrestling program has also seen an improvement in results. This season, Loy Norrix has several victories and a tournament title under its belt.
Recent Loy Norrix wrestler Nick May was once an anchor of the team’s growth. After finishing as the state runner up his junior and senior seasons, May is currently a redshirt freshman wrestling at Michigan State University. Looking back on his time at Loy Norrix, May said it is easy to see the impact Hill and Parker had on the program, just as it is to see the program’s growth.
“They became my coaches my sophomore year, and they definitely changed my perspective of wrestling; they changed my attitude towards it,” May said. “I always competed in it, but I wasn’t very enthusiastic about my goals in wrestling. I wrestled because of football.
“As a team, you saw a lot of kids do the same thing,” he added. “[There was] an attitude of doing it just to do it, or for a different sport, or to be in a sport in general. You saw the coaches come in and help develop better techniques and better goals as a team and individually. They really pushed us. They definitely changed the program and changed myself as a wrestler.”
For Parker, a coach in every sense of the word, the low numbers in the early years weren’t a deterrent, because he saw a group of student-athletes with the desire to improve.
“The kids we had wanted to be wrestlers,” he said. “They wanted to work. They wanted to get better.
“I loved every single day going to practice with those kids.”
Loy Norrix Athletic Director Andrew Laboe recalls hiring the two friends as being an “easy hire” – years later, Laboe likes what he sees in the program. In particular, the growth in numbers, and the growth in the student-athletes themselves, has been evident.
“I think sometimes kids are afraid to fail, and I think that Alex and Darrick have done a great job at encouraging kids to come out and give it a try,” Laboe said.
“They have made students view wrestling in a different way – more competitive, more fun.”
May echoed those sentiments.
“They are great coaches and they push us,” May said. “They’re a really great fit for our school. They encourage the kids who don’t have a lot of wrestling experience. These coaches encourage them and develop them. From the time they came in, to when I left, there is so much growth. It made it a lot more fun to wrestle. Much more enjoyable.”
Parker says a key factor is the way the two coaches balance each other out.
“We’ve got a great relationship when it comes to wrestling,” he said. “My weaker points in wrestling are (Alex’s) stronger points, so it’s like ying and yang, it works out perfectly.”
And as the two continue to bring the Loy Norrix wrestling program to new heights, Parker says the duo is also aiming for goals outside of their gym walls.
“We want Kalamazoo as a whole to be a better city when it comes to wrestling,” he said. “If it’s a kid that’s not supposed to come to us, but they want to be a better wrestler, come on. All that’s going to do is bring more exposure to the sport.
“Our room is always open to anyone who wants to be a wrestler,” he added. “Girl, guy, skinny, short, husky, whatever. It doesn’t matter. We want kids to wrestle. We want to give them the tools to be the best wrestler they can be.”
No matter how many are lined up at the door.