Hillcrest wrestlers gear up to face state-champion contenders in new regionNov 11, 2021 10:07AM ● By Julie Slama
Hillcrest High wrestlers, seen here in a December 2020 match, prepare for their season in “one of the toughest regions.” (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Tucked away in three Hillcrest High wrestlers’ backpacks is the book, “Leaders Eat Last.”
Their coach, Nick Pappas, asked them to read it, then share the book with others.
“The book is packed full of information on being a good leader and leveraging your abilities to promote unity and growth,” he said.
Pappas doesn’t pick the captains on the team “until they are the clear-cut leaders on the team based on commitment to others, commitment to the sport, solid work ethic and the capacity to reach others.”
“They aren't necessarily the most talented wrestlers on the team, but those who have the biggest impact on the team culture as a whole,” he said, adding that he encourages all his wrestlers to write their goals and share them with each other so they can help each other push to reach them. “I’ll check in every now and again, not necessarily for what their goals are, but just how they’re doing, how I support them and help them be a better person.”
In the preseason, some of those team leaders are stepping up to teach others during open gym as well as to “shake off the rust and go over basics and learn what to expect and practice,” Pappas said.
He estimates about 40 students, both male and female, have shown some interest in the sport.
“We really don’t have tryouts; wrestling is more ‘see if that works.’ Every single year, I have 15 to 20% of kids who come that first day of practice and don’t make it through the season, for whatever reason,” Pappas said.
The first official practice is Nov. 8; their first match is Dec. 1 at Taylorsville High. Through late January, there are up to three competitions almost weekly before divisionals on Feb. 4-5, 2022. The state tournament will be Feb. 16-17, 2022 at Utah Valley State College.
While Hillcrest graduated four seniors last year, he anticipates everyone else to return.
“I have two seniors and five juniors returning who I see will be our core group of guys,” he said. “It’ll be heavy with six sophomores returning.”
Amongst those is junior Wyatt Manning, who has a goal to be better than his uncle who wrestled at state.
“I went to a bunch of camps, learned a lot more moves and my mindset is better,” he said. “My focus is on points, to score more. I see Uintah as the hardest challenge for us; they had a lot of good guys at state.”
His teammate, Sam McDonough, wants to “live up every minute” of his senior season.
“I’ve been training hard for this moment; I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve worked on my mindset,” he said. “I see a lot of potential with this group of guys. Hillcrest wrestling has been the underdog, so I hope this year, we’ll rise.”
All five girls on the team are returning and there are some new girls who are trying the sport as well, the coach said.
“We’re looking around eight or more girls so that’s going to double my numbers,” he said.
Amongst those returning are junior Briona Love and sophomore Lilly Hutchings, who took sixth place in last year’s girls’ wrestling inaugural state championships that combined 1A, 2A, 3A and 5A classifications.
Hutchings said that she also has worked to improve, often wrestling with her younger sister.
“I like that it’s a team sport, but it’s individual on the mat,” she said. “It’s about being the best I can be.”
Love, who was ineligible to compete much of last year, said her goal is to place in the top three at state.
“I’m keeping on top of my grades; sitting out last year killed me,” she said. “I love wrestling. If I win, then it’s ‘I did that.’ If I lose, it’s on me and me alone. I can’t blame others if I fail. I used to hold back in matches, but now I’m ready to take that shot and nail it or fail it. I’m not holding anything back. I want the same for the other girls. We’re a team, and I want to see every girl on the podium.”
Those numbers will help as they face their opponents in what Pappas said is “one of the toughest regions in the state.”
Beginning this year, Hillcrest now competes in 5A region 7, which includes Payson, the returning 5A champions, and Uintah, who jumped up from 4A where they were state champions and now are ranked first in 5A. Both Stansbury and Tooele high schools were ranked in the top 15 in 4A and moved into this region, he said.
“It’s tough, but we’ll have to go through them eventually if they want to get to the state championship, so it’s good to see them early and see how they wrestle, what their style is, so we know what to expect,” Pappas said. “We have a good group of kids and I think we’ll surprise people. We will be a good dual team provided everybody does come back.”
He said their success also will factor in if they’ve stayed in shape and prepared for the season.
“I have kids who are working hard, and I know just who they are as people, their work ethic will keep them in a lot of matches and I think they’re going to surprise a lot of people. I’m trying to instill a culture where kids want to come and they want to grind and get to work,” he said. “More than anything, I’m big on just being better. Be better today than you were yesterday—every single match. As long as we are improving, as long as we’re taking chances, as long as we’re making mistakes and learning from them, that’s where the real progress is.”