BOONE — Watauga’s wrestling program has hit some hard times in recent years. New coach Zach Strickland would like to be the coach to lift the Pioneers back to prominence.
Strickland was hired to be the program’s new mentor May 11 after being the Watauga middle school coach the past four years. Strickland, who is originally from Muncy, Pa., wrestled at Appalachian State under former Pioneers coach JohnMark Bentley, who built a solid program at Watauga.
He lent a hand with the varsity last season and is excited to be the head coach of the program.
“I’m definitely ready,” Strickland said. “Helping out with the high school that last month last year definitely put the fire underneath me. I’ve enjoyed working with the other kids with the middle school, but with the level of wrestling that exists in the state, I am definitely excited to be a part of that.”
Strickland has his work cut out for him. The Pioneers lose their top wrestler, 220-pounder Ben Oakes, to graduation. Oakes reached the 100-win mark while at Watauga, but the Pioneers return around 14 wresters from the 2019-20 season.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 does not help Strickland in that he is not allowed by the NCHSAA to physically coach returning wrestlers or share any skill development.
Despite that, Strickland said Watauga could return to prominence with the wrestlers walking in the halls at Watauga High School.
“The athletes are still here,” Strickland said. “The kids haven’t changed. We’ve got a good foundation in the program building and with the middle school building off of that, we’re ready to take that next step to the high school.”
Strickland started coaching the middle school program with just six athletes. The team, which practices in the cafeteria of Watauga High School, has grown to 20 kids.
The team was able to fill all but three weights since there were multiple weight-classes that had more than one wrestler.
The middle school team also was using the traditional mats, but was able to buy new mats that are just as effective, but much lighter to carry from room-to-room.
“We’ve got Dollamur mats that we’ve been rolling out to the cafeteria and we’ve been using them and it’s been promising,” Strickland said.
Strickland would like to get more wrestling at the younger levels so by the time they get to high school, they are not starting from scratch. He knows this from personal experience.
“I’ve been wrestling since I was 5,” he said. “We were at tournaments every weekend and you could tell the difference from the kids who have been around the sport and the kids who just started. You talk about the maturity of the kids in high school — you can’t compete with those who have been doing it their whole lives to those who just decide to come out.”
Going into the future, Strickland would like the Pioneers to become physically stronger next season.
Strickland was a Pennsylvania state champion and a prep All-American with a prep career record of 136-17 at Muncy High School. He was an NCAA national qualifier at 165 pound in 2013 at Appalachian State, which included an opening-round 6-1 win. Strickland was also part of the All-Southern Conference and All-SoCon freshman teams in 2013.