Sumter High wrestling working to grow around young core


The Sumter High wrestling program is in the midst of a bit of a reboot.

After losing a number of seniors to graduation during the last few seasons, the top-heavy program didn't have a batch of growing wrestlers waiting in the wings. Head coach Johnny Lee said that is just one of the reasons the program is playing catchup.

"I wrestled back in the late '80s, and the team that graduated with me in '87, we finished fourth in the state, and the program should've kept going after that, but it didn't. There was no consistency, and wrestling is not a popular sport at Sumter High," Lee said. "Technically, we're about 10 years behind. We've got to grow it together. (Lakewood head coach) Josh (Williams) and I, we're trying to do some things together."

That lack of consistency was evident coming into the season.

The Gamecocks' only returning senior is Crystal Mitchell, who signed to wrestle at Allen University next year. Outside of her, most of the roster is newcomers. While some juniors are in the mix, as well as one new senior, most of the varsity roster is freshmen and sophomores.

Teaching most of a roster the basics of the sport to be able to compete at the varsity level has been quite the experience for Lee and his staff, especially because their schedule has been light so far this season. The Gamecocks had bus issues that forced them to miss the bulk of their early season schedule, and they didn't have their first team match until last week.

"You teach them 20 moves; they remember three," joked Lee. "Once you teach them that, then you have to teach them to do it consistently. Then you have to get them to buy into it and let them understand that this stuff does work.

"The dynamic is tricky because you don't know who your leaders are, and you don't know the kids that will take it the wrong way."

One way Lee hopes to build around this year's young group is to make sure they're the last team that sees many of its wrestlers learning the sport for the first time. That means building up a youth and middle school program.

Right now, the Gamecocks have six wrestlers at the middle school level. Three of those wrestlers, Brian Wilson and the Skyers brothers, Ryheim and Jaheim, advanced to the middle school state sectionals this weekend, so the bones of a middle school program are there. Now Lee wants to see it grow.

"This is a two- to three-year process," Lee said. "We're trying to build everything through our middle school program, and we're trying to get some people in place to help push that.

"Getting the youth is the key. And getting kids interested. The sad thing about it, and this is a reality, here in Sumter County, it's football, basketball, baseball and everything else, and wrestling is down at the bottom. However, whenever a kid gets involved, they love the sport. Once we get them involved, it's about retaining them and recruiting the new generation that comes behind them."

One person trying to help the development of those young wrestlers is Mitchell. Before joining the team, she was a manager, so she's been plugged into the program throughout her high school career. She's trying to pass any knowledge she can down to wrestlers of all ages.

"Crystal is one of our leaders, one of our motivators. She gets on those kids more than I do," Lee said. "Last Friday we went to a JV tournament, and she was out helping me coach because we had more than 20 kids out there. She didn't want to go back Saturday (for the middle school tournament) but the middle schoolers wanted her to come back because she was helping them, too. She influences them, and she's my little personal motivator."

Lee knows Sumter has plenty of room to grow during the next few years but wants to set a strong foundation this year. Mitchell will be the only starter who graduates after the season, and there are only four juniors in the starting lineup, so most of the roster will be with the Gamecocks for several years if they stick with the sport.

"Individually, I want the kids to have as much fun as they can," Lee said of his goals for the season. "I want them to improve 1% every day. For the team, I just want to win one match. Some people want to go undefeated. I know where our program is at, and I know where I want them to be, and my thing is to keep this unit together, and we'll have something to build on."