Smyrna Little Wrestlers: 35 Years...

35 Years of Wrestling Tradition...

                            SMYRNA LITTLE WRESTLERS ~ SINCE 1972 

Once upon a time, the sport of wresting started in the 9th grade in Smyrna.

That might be hard to imagine for some of the younger members of the Smyrna wrestling program.

Now young athletes have the opportunity to wrestle for 12 seasons by the time they graduate high school. Some top wrestlers travel to tournaments across the country and compete throughout the year, not just in the winter.

Over the past 35 years, Smyrna’s success in the sport has been reinforced by a strong feeder program that began with promise and quickly grew.

The Smyrna Little Wrestlers program, founded in 1972, is still thriving today.

It continues to foster Smyrna’s wrestling tradition and provide kids with life lessons.

Former Little Wrestlers have grown into state champions.

Others have become prominent members of the community.

Some are now coaches in the program, sharing their knowledge with a new generation of Smyrna wrestlers.

Humble beginning, rapid growth

Smyrna Little Wrestlers didn’t begin as the massive feeder program it is today.

In fact, it was originally a recreational program offered through the Town of Smyrna.

Former Smyrna High wrestling coach Buddy Lloyd, who is now assistant superintendent for the Smyrna School District, started the program in 1972 at the suggestion of Conrad Riley, who was a middle school social studies teacher in the district.

Lloyd said that Riley was working with Smyrna Mayor George Wright to develop recreational programs for the town. Riley approached Lloyd with the idea of a youth wrestling program for the kids of Smyrna.

And that’s how it began.

For the first two years, Little Wrestlers was a town program.

It caught on right away, with about 40 wrestlers the first year.

“There was a lot of interest because Smyrna was doing really well at the time – winning conference titles,” Lloyd said. “It was a sport that was catching on and we wanted to continue it.”

The program quickly grew in size, perhaps beyond the town’s the expectations.

After two years, the Little Wrestlers broke away from the town. Lloyd started registration fees so he could give out certificates, trophies and t-shirts to the participants.

By the late 1970s, as many as 140 kids were involved in Smyrna Little Wrestlers.

“It just kept growing and growing,” Lloyd said.

Former wrestling coach Ron Eby served as the referee for the tournament at the end of the program. Eby was also instrumental in adding a middle school program in Smyrna, Lloyd said. Many of the athletes who wrestled under Lloyd in the late 70s and 80s had come up through the feeder program.

In 1982, Smyrna High produced three state champions – Dean Johnson, Lee Pinder and Sebastian Gonzalez. All three had gone through the Little Wrestlers program.

Eventually, Mike Dulin became the head wrestling coach at Smyrna High. He also took the reins of the Little Wrestlers program.

Dulin saw the effects of the feeder program while coaching the high school team.

By the time the kids got to high school, many of them already had several years of wrestling under their belts.

“I would say about 75 percent came through the Little Wrestlers program,” Dulin said.

In the late 80s, some of Lloyd’s former wrestlers got involved and breathed some new life into the feeder program.

Brian Fletcher, Dean Johnson, Mike Campbell and Lee Pinder, who all wrestled together at Smyrna High in the early 80s, came back to help teach aspiring wrestlers.

“They’ve taken the Little Wrestlers program to another level,” Dulin said. “You’d have to look long and hard to find a program better than what we have here.”

Wrestling, four nights a week

Back in the early days, Smyrna Little Wrestlers only met on Saturdays. The program ran for six weeks in January through February.

Now it’s four nights a week, plus weekend tournaments. Wrestlers in grades 5-8 practice on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, grades 1-4 meet.

Little Wrestlers currently runs from the first week in November all the way to March, said Ginger Barkley, on the program’s current coordinators.

Some of the older kids continue even longer by competing in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

The local feeder program also includes a travel team and a Catholic Youth Ministries league for grades 5-8 headed by Andy Gillan.

The Little Wrestlers program was originally for kids in grades 5-7.

Now the program basically starts with first graders and goes up through the eighth grade, incorporating the CYM league.

Barkley said a total of 138 kids are participating in Smyrna Little Wrestlers and CYM this year.

The travel team gives the top wrestlers a chance to compete out of state. The team goes to many tournaments in Maryland, but some of wrestlers travel to events in places like Ohio and Oklahoma.

Barkley remembers watching her brother, Jimmy Ryan, compete in the Smyrna High natatorium back when the program was still pretty new. The building didn’t have heat at that time, she said.

“The facilities are a lot better now,” Barkley said. “I remember it being so cold in there.”

Instruction, competition and life lessons

Lloyd said one of the challenges of running a youth program is finding a balance between making it fun and trying to give the kids a chance to be successful.

It’s important not to drive the kids too hard or put too much pressure on them, he said.

 “There’s nothing wrong with a kid saying ‘It’s baseball season, I want to play baseball,’” Lloyd said.

Like other athletic experiences, kids can learn lessons from wrestling that they can apply to their lives outside the sport.

Lloyd said wrestling is a good character builder for kids.

 “It’s you. It’s you and another person in front of everybody. You cannot hide. If you make a mistake, everyone sees it,” he said.

You get humbled very quickly, and you always have to bring your “A game,” Lloyd said.

Fletcher said the sport emphasizes the importance of discipline. Wrestlers need to practice hard, eat a healthy diet and maintain their weight level.

“It teaches an excellent work ethic for down the road when they get a job,” Fletcher said.

“Kids see how far they can go with hard work and that ‘never give up’ attitude,” said Dulin.

Barkley said the kids also learn sportsmanship.

“It’s just you, so you can’t blame anyone else if you make a mistake,” she said.

The program’s coordinators wished to thank the people who have donated their time to Little Wrestlers.

“It wouldn’t be possible without all the volunteers and sponsors we’ve had throughout the years,” Barkley said.

Barkley said Kurt Howell and Jody Wilson, put in a lot of time with the program.

Fletcher mentioned all the women involved in the program – wives of coaches and parents and volunteers – who help by organizing tournaments, ordering trophies and t-shirts, and treating the bumps and bruises.

Lloyd encouraged any parents with a wrestling background to stay involved and help out any way they can.

Thirty five years later, Lloyd is proud of the way the Little Wrestlers program has endured over the years.

“I’m very pleased and proud when I go out there and see them practicing,” he said. “I like seeing the guys I coached now going back to coach the kids.”

Article by:  Seth Clevenger

Smyrna/Clayton Sun Times

*December 19, 2007