A look at John Stark wrestling’s revival
|Published: 01-25-2023 7:55 PM
WEARE – After Zach Feudner applied for the John Stark wrestling coach position before the start of last season, he asked then-sophomore Stephen Johnston how many wrestlers he’d have on the team.
The answer: Just two.
“I mulled that over for a little bit,” Feudner said. “That seemed like a long season for two kids, but then I felt like I had an obligation to see what I could do to revive the program in a way.”
A 2015 graduate of John Stark himself, Feudner found witnessing the decline of the wrestling program personal.
By the start of last season, he’d built the roster up to 12, helped in part by his role as an assistant coach for the football team. But by the end of the season, he had just four wrestlers participate in the Division III championship.
The in-season dropoff of wrestlers wasn’t super-unexpected; with so many kids new to the sport, he was bound to have several realize they didn’t like it.
Feudner then entered this year with 19 kids; he currently has 16 that participate across 10 weight classes.
“That’s the most we’ve filled in probably eight years,” he said. “There have been good wrestlers that came through the program in the last decade, but there hasn’t been a full team in a long time, so I think we’re finally starting to see the team aspect of the sport rolling around.”
On Jan. 14, the Generals finished second out of 10 teams at the Daniel Gionet Memorial Tournament at Pelham High. It was the highest finish for John Stark wrestling at a tournament in at least eight years.
“It was a great confidence booster,” Feudner said of the performance. “It gives us something to build off of, shows the kids what kind of success we can have when we’re firing on all cylinders.”
The decline of John Stark’s wrestling program correlated precisely with when Bill Walton, the program’s founder, left during Feudner’s sophomore year.
With Walton in charge, roughly 25 to 30 kids always participated. After he left, those numbers declined sharply. As a math teacher at the high school, he had that direct access to encourage his students to try wrestling. No longer involved, that pipeline deteriorated.
Over the next few years, there was a good deal of turnover – Feudner recalled four different coaches in eight years. So when he arrived in this new role last year, he essentially started from scratch.
He received a jolt of excitement when he saw that 19 kids had registered to join before this year. It was a sign that he had things moving in a positive direction.
“The big thing for us right now is trying to rebuild that culture within the town,” he said. “It’s a culture that’s definitely fizzled away. … Only filling 10 or 11 weight classes, we still have work to do for the future in terms of recruiting, but right now, we have the best foundation that I could ask for.”
Johnston and junior Lukas Boulanger, the two captains, have been key in laying that groundwork.
Last year, Boulanger won the D-III state championship at 182 pounds; this year, he’s up two weight classes to 220 and won that weight class at the Gionet Tournament. Johnston finished second at 170 pounds. In addition, Deltyn Williams – the only 182-pounder on this year’s roster – is near the top of the team leaderboard in wins in just his first year as a varsity wrestler. Freshman Sean Crean, at 126 pounds, continues to show potential, placing second in his weight class at the Gionet Tournament, while junior Caleb Hauptman won the 120-pound weight class at that event.
Moving forward, Feudner’s relying on his expanding group to help further grow the program.
Even entering this season, he took more of a back seat when it came to recruiting and relied on his returnees to make the pitch to prospective wrestlers.
“We had a real good investment out of the six or seven kids that were on the team last year. They wanted to help rebuild the program, so I can’t give them enough credit in that aspect,” Feudner said. “It’s one thing for me to go up to every football player in the town and shake their hand and ask them to come wrestle for me. It’s another for their peers to ask them.
“They would recruit one kid, and that next kid would recruit another kid. One thing after another, our numbers from last year have doubled if not tripled.”
The influx of new wrestlers certainly requires more hands-on instruction from Feudner and the coaching staff, but it’s what’s required to continue moving John Stark wrestling forward.
And, after multiplying from two to seven to 19 athletes in just this short span, it’s clear that after about eight years of struggles, John Stark wrestling continues to rebound. It should only continue to grow in the years ahead.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but the most important part is we’ve got a great foundation for the future that we look to build off this season and future seasons,” Feudner said. “Out of the kids on the team, there’s only one senior, so no matter what happens this year, we’re building for the future of the program.”