The most unique high school wrestling team in Minnesota is Scott West. If this fact leads a few folks to say things like: “Where is Scott West? … I’ve never heard of that town,” that’s OK.
Scott West is a cooperative team, with athletes from Jordan, Belle Plaine and Holy Family Academy in Belle Plaine. The towns are only seven miles apart on Highway 169 in Scott County ... the west side of Scott County, to be precise.
“A lot of people ask where Scott West is. They think it’s a city,” said junior David Flynn, a two-time state qualifier who finished fourth in Class 2A at 113 pounds last year.
What makes the wrestling team unique is that Jordan and Belle Plaine compete against each other in every other sport. But in wrestling, boys from both schools come together. The change from competitors to teammates is especially stark when football season ends and wrestling season begins.
“A lot of the guys on the wrestling team are in football and we compete against each other,” said junior Andrew Fogarty, who placed third (at 138 and 160) in the Class 2A state tournament as a freshman and sophomore. “It’s different when it’s wrestling season. In football we’re pretty competitive, our towns are close together and we’re really big rivals. Then the wrestling season comes and we drop all that and we’re friends again.”
There are 36 wrestlers in grades 9-12 this season, with 16 from Belle Plaine and 20 from Jordan. That’s a pretty even split for a team that always has high expectations.
The architect of the cooperative agreement was Kevin Slack. He coached wrestling from 1980 through the 2012-13 season, first at Belle Plaine and then with the cooperative, which was formed in the 1990-91 season. The accomplishments of his wrestlers and teams is first-rate: 134 state tournament qualifiers, 71 finishers among the top six at state, 14 individual state champions and 13 teams that qualified for state.
The cooperative team – which this season is one of 76 wrestling coops in the state -- was the best way to make sure neither school’s wrestling program fell victim to shrinking numbers.
“At the time, Jordan was having the start of a numbers problem,” Slack said. “At the same time, Belle Plaine was suffering a similar problem, maybe to a little lesser degree. The two towns looked at, ‘How can we get better?’
“Wrestling was an attractive situation to those in charge from the start and we were very happy with the way things were going. We worked very, very hard to never look at the program as two parts. We worked to make the program look as one, and it didn’t matter where the kids went to school. At end of the day they were all part of one program.”
The team practices at Jordan High School, with matches held at both schools. Belle Plaine teams are the Tigers, boys teams at Jordan are the Hubmen and girls teams are the Jaguars. The wrestling team has its own singular identity: the Scott West Panthers.
“I think that the success of the Scott West program over the years has helped create its own solid identity,” said Darren Ripley, who is a current co-coach with Jerold Stauffacher. “However it is still not uncommon for us to hear or to be asked, “Who is Scott West? Where is Scott West?’ We usually just kind of laugh it off and think to ourselves, ‘Maybe they haven't been following Minnesota high school wrestling for the last quarter century.’ ”
In the very early days of the cooperative, Slack said there were obstacles to overcome. Some people, for example, had a difficult time letting go of lengthy support of their hometown school and backing the new team.
“It takes a lot of work to make a coop work,” Slack said. “It’s very, very difficult to get two sides not to look inwardly and look at their own interests as the priority. That’s what makes some of the coops not be as successful as they want. It can be very difficult. That’s just human nature. Some of the parents grew up wrestling for Belle Plaine and Jordan. You have those feelings that don’t go away.”
These days, the routine for the wrestlers does not seem odd or difficult to anyone involved. When the school day ends and practice is on the schedule, wrestlers from Belle Plaine take the short bus ride to Jordan and go to the wrestling room. Once workouts begin, no one is a Jordan Hubman or Belle Plaine Tiger; they are all Scott West Panthers.
"What some may view as logistical hurdles, we just view as a way of life at Scott West,” Ripley said. “It’s just what we do. We have been together and at this for 24 years so those logistical hurdles really are just part of the process.”
A new high school was built in Jordan about 10 years ago. Before that, the practice routine was a little tougher. The team rotated practices every two weeks between the Jordan small gym/cafeteria and the Belle Plaine small gym/cafeteria, with wrestlers having to roll out mats every day.
With a spacious wrestling room now on hand in Jordan, “No wrestlers have to roll mats out and up for every practice and you also don't have to worry about ketchup, pickles or other food items on the mat,” Ripley said.
The Scott West Panthers will celebrate 25 years next season, and Slack was honored last week for his years of service – always without pay – to wrestling at Belle Plaine and Scott West.
A large new wrestling mat was dedicated to Slack before a match against Tri-City United. The mat is the largest in Minnesota, measuring 54 feet by 52 feet (the standard is 38 x 38). A large decal on the mat reads: “In Honor Of Kevin Slack/Coach 1980-2013.”
“Obviously, it’s very humbling,” Slack said. “You don’t have success like Scott West on the shoulders of one person. I’ve known from the start that no matter what my part was, it was only a part. We’ve had tremendous effort and time put in by so many people. It’s nice to be remembered, but sometimes it’s hard to accept.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 270
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,963
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
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