More than half of the Patriots grapplers are underclassmen and many had little to no wrestling experience before this year. Head coach Mark Barnes works off campus but is the defensive coordinator for the freshman football team in the fall. It was there that he recruited many of the young Heritage wrestlers.
One of the Patriots’ most experienced wrestlers is Clayton Hambrick, a top competitor in the 152-pound class. “I think they’re adjusting very well, a lot better than I adjusted when I was younger,” said Hambrick of his younger teammates. “They’re learning how it is, making weight with everybody, and keeping their weight down.”
The Patriots are small in another way. Injuries to their key heavyweight wrestlers have depleted their ranks – down to zero – in that class. Additionally, Will Oliver, who recently signed a football scholarship to UCLA and had wrestled for three previous years, opted not to wrestle in his senior season.
The inability to field a full team puts Heritage at a disadvantage against every team in the Bay Valley Athletic League, with the exception of Deer Valley. And yet in the recent Heritage loss to a strong Antioch team – a contest in which the Patriots were forced to forfeit seven matches – Barnes found consolation: in the seven matches that were wrestled, Heritage won five; the Panthers two.
In his first season as the Patriots’ head coach, Barnes has coached all around the country for the last 25 years. He began coaching at Heritage because his son Dalton wrestles for the team. A junior, Dalton also plays tight end for the Patriots football squad.
For some, wrestling is a sport that can occupy 11 months of the year. Citing himself as an example, coach Barnes pointed out that wrestling is a great way to keep kids out of trouble. It gives them not only a place to go, but a safe and legal outlet to release aggression.
“It’s a family. You sweat together, you bleed together, and you make weight together,” said Barnes. “For some tournaments, you leave at 5:30 in the morning on a Friday and don’t come home until Saturday night. So you spend two days cooped up together.”
Although the new wrestlers have picked up the game with surprising speed, they’ve also taken their lumps. Many of the top wrestlers in the area have been involved in the sport for most of their lives. Some are ranked among the top wrestlers in the state.
“Kids that are my age, I have done pretty well against,” said freshman 125-pounder Nathan Cleverly, a football player recruited by Barnes in the fall. “It’s the older, more experienced wrestlers that I have had problems with. They are a lot stronger and I need to get stronger.”