There’s not much room for spectators inside the Chapel Hill High School wrestling mat room where the Big Cats youth wrestling program participants meets. Most of the parents patiently wait in the hallway.
Still, each Monday and Wednesday evening, young wrestlers are on display gauged, weighed, measured under the watchful eyes of dozens of champions who stare down from framed photographs on the walls. Wide-eyed young athletes return their gazes, set goals, take aim, perhaps eying their own place on that same wall someday.
“We come in right after the high school wrestlers finish their practice,” Big Cats coach Andy Gunning said. “The high school kids hang around a little while our kids are just in awe.
“You look at the pictures up on the wall here its history. The kids start thinking about what it requires to be the next face on this wall.”
Big Cats wrestling had started in the cafeteria at Phillips Middle School. The program moved this year to Chapel Hill High School, and the change has given program participants an up-close-and-personal introduction to wrestling at the next level.
“Being here gets these kids that much closer to the high school,” said Big Cats alum and CHHS sophomore wrestler Roberto Sibrian, who wrestles at 182 pounds for the Tigers and still volunteers with Big Cats. “For these kids to see the high schoolers wrestle is just motivation. They just want it more.”
Geared toward boy or girl in kindergarten through eighth grade, the Big Cats are in their third year, meeting Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at CHHS.
Gunning has stepped in temporarily as Big Cats head coach for founder and former NCAA All-American Richard Redfoot; he’s taking the season off but is expected to return.
Redfoot’s son, Max, was a state champion at Chapel Hill High School. Gunning wrestled in college at James Madison University.
Gunning said those interested in joining the program need to go to the USA Wrestling website ( www.usawrestling.org) for a membership card prior to participating in practice (a limited folk style membership is adequate). Registrants should sign up for the “Cardiac Kids” club to start.
“Big Cats is affiliated with Cardiac Kids wrestling,” he said, “because they have a charter, so we just dropped into that.”
“All of these kids are USA Wrestling members,” he added, “and there is a fee to register, but all of that money goes to the Chapel Hill Wrestling program not to me.”
While Big Cats participants can wrestle in smaller tournaments, competitive wrestling is not the priority.
“We go to what they call first- and second-year tournaments, where they just group the kids by weight,” Gunning explained. “Some of the more advanced kids will go to meets like the Honey Badger Tournament over in Hickory. Our high school team was even there. It was just a great environment.”
In keeping with the name of the “Big Cats” program, Gunning hopes the program will seed success at local high schools (each bearing a “Big Cat” mascot, i.e., the Chapel Hill Tigers, the Carrboro Jaguars the East Chapel Hill Wildcats).
“Like the cross-country teams do, we want to create a family,” he said. “We want these kids growing up seeing the high school wrestlers and interacting with them. Our goal is to keep it fun and enjoyable to get kids learning the basics.
“At the end of most practices, we try to play a game, like Bulldog, (a game like tag with take-downs), but the kids have to earn that.”
Chapel Hill Wrestling head coach Tripp Price said he’s already seeing the benefits of youth wrestling reaching the high schools.
“The greatest thing is the numbers we now get when they’re introduced to wrestling at an earlier age,” Price said, “and were seeing it now at the high school.”
“It’s what you see at Orange High School. Orange Coach (Bob) Shriner has a great kids program going up there,” Price added. “For us to be competitive, we have to have those things too. To get wrestling in all of the middle schools a few years ago made a big difference. Now we just have to go to the next level with the younger kids, so we keep getting full teams when they get to the middle schools.”
Along with Big Cats volunteer Sibrian, Prices own son Hudson and incoming freshmen Graham Jones and Brian Bautista are all Big Cats alumni who Price hopes will make the CHHS program stronger this season.
But for many of the participants, they simply wrestle because it's fun.
“This is my second year,” Daniela Thiele, 11, said. “I just love wrestling people. I like that I’m (using) my time doing something fun.”
“The best part is when you do live wrestling,” Hugo Bautista, 7, said. “Wrestling my sister (Karina, 9) is the best part ever.”
“I like playing Bulldog,” Ronin Sorensen, 5, said.
For those interested in participation, the first two weeks of practice are free; the regular season ($80) runs through February. A spring season ($40) runs from March through May. Wrestlers can participate in both seasons for $100 (and there are opportunities for scholarships).
Gunning said those interested should email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
There’s always room for more wrestlers on the mats, Gunning said. And there’s also plenty of room left for champions’ photos on the walls.