When one public school district brings the oldest and greatest sport to at all seven of its high schools, that's something to celebrate.
The only thing that could make that kind of news even bigger? When that school district is in South Carolina, not necessary on most wrestling fans' lists of the nation's "high school wrestling hotbeds."
The great news worth celebrating is from South Carolina's Aiken County Public Schools, a 25,000-student district located in the southern part of the state, along the South Carolina-Georgia border. (In fact, the nearest big city to Aiken County is Augusta, Ga.)
Aiken County was the fourth-largest in South Carolina not to have wrestling. Until now.
The rollout of wrestling at Aiken County's seven public high schools is taking place over a two-year period. The wrestling programs at four high schools just completed their first season; the remaining three schools will have wrestling for the first time this fall.
Sean AlfordThe effort has been driven by Aiken County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford, who made sure all seven programs had a brand-new wrestling mat as well as home and away singlets at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
Alford believes in wrestling. He coached youth wrestling. Two of his sons wrestled in high school (in another district) and went on to post-secondary mat careers -- one at The Citadel, the other, A.J., currently wrestling at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
"They were lucky to gain the core principles that wrestling offers to its participants," Alford told InterMat.
"Aiken County has a great tradition of producing athletes in various sports, some who have had success in pro sports," Alford continued.
"When I came here, I was surprised, given the track record of sports success, that this district did not have wrestling in its high schools."
Why a two-year plan to bring wrestling to Aiken County's seven high schools, rather than launching all the programs in a single season?
"I wanted to make sure to get these programs off to a solid start," said Alford. "It was the most cost-efficient way to do this."
"The first four to get wrestling were the largest schools in the district. They are located near each other. Their athletic programs compete in the same class."
One of Aiken County's first four wrestling programs is at Midland Valley, a 1,500-student high school. Its head wrestling coach is Kevin Emily, a South Carolina native who grew up in one of the hottest of the wrestling hotbed states, Iowa ... in Waterloo, Iowa, to be exact, Dan Gable's hometown. In fact, Emily coached at Waterloo West High, Gable's prep alma mater.
Coach Emily describes Midland Valley High students and the surrounding community as being "hard-working, blue collar." The school has been successful in sports, especially basketball and football; "a lot of kids around here go play football in the SEC (Southeast Conference) and on to the NFL," according to Emily.
Given that hard-working background and passion for excellence in sports, Kevin Emily thought that wrestling would appeal to local athletes, their parents, and the community.
"No other sport can teach you what wrestling does. None," Emily told the Aiken (S.C.) Standard. "This is the toughest sport in the world. The toughest athletes, the hardest working athletes at any school are the wrestlers. Hands down."
"We started out this summer with four guys," Kevin Emily said to the Augusta Chronicle in mid-November 2016, just as the Midland Valley program was getting started. "The four seniors, as soon as I got here, they were waiting on me. They were calling me. The second day I got here, we practiced. Bit by bit, it started growing."
The Midland Valley Mustangs first-year wrestling team quickly galloped to double-digit participation numbers.
Another one of the first four Aiken County high schools to have wrestling last fall was North Augusta. Its mat program is headed up by Matt Franklin.
"I think being a part of the first wrestling program in North Augusta is big to these kids," Franklin told the Augusta Chronicle. "Our motto is, 'The tradition starts today with you.' North Augusta is based on tradition. You want to set a good example, and I think that's what motivates them to show up every day."
Midland Valley's Kevin Emily echoes that sentiment. Although he recently coached at Iowa's Waterloo West -- truly a legacy program with a long, rich history of on-the-mat success -- this was the first time he launched a new wrestling program from scratch.
"Most of the kids here had never wrestled a match in their lives, but were completely gung-ho," Emily told InterMat.
"The kids are like sponges. They absorbed all the info."
"There's none of that 'That's not the way we did it before' attitude here."
So ... how did that first season go for Emily and his first-time wrestlers?
"My team Midland Valley HS cracked the top 4A 20 rankings with kids who had never wrestled a day in their lives," Coach Emily told InterMat. "We got ranked 17th"
"I had one kid, a junior, end up being ranked sixth in the state, beat a ranked wrestler, beat an eventual state place winner earlier in the season and Raekwon (Jackson) came one match from placing at state. All of that with less than three months of wrestling experience.
"I know my kids think I'm crazy but they know I care about them."