Highlands wrestling coach Walters draws from past for program’s future
By: Doug Gulasy
Tuesday, December 12, 2017 | 7:54 PM
Grant Walters put his wrestlers through something of a boot camp this summer, bringing in coaches from his past to relay their experience, knowledge and philosophies. With a young roster, Walters thought it crucial to have his charges learn as much as possible as early as possible.
He believes that even more strongly now.
Despite a group that counts just two seniors and a junior among its numbers, Highlands began the season by winning four of five matches at the Carrick Duals — enough to raise Walters' already high optimism for the future of the program.
This summer was the first time Walters held his wrestling meeting of the minds, and it won't be the last.
“I'm a coach, not a miracle worker, but when you do put all those (coaching) minds together, you can make miracles happen real fast,” said Walters, in his fifth season at Highlands. “Especially with young kids that have drive.”
A few Alle-Kiski Valley wrestling teams find themselves in a similar position with young, inexperienced wrestlers.
Riverview, which has a limited number of wrestlers to draw from given the school's small size, is relying on underclassmen to fill out the lineup. Fox Chapel coach Ron Frank, who has more than 400 career victories, said his team is one of the most inexperienced in his long tenure. Projected starters Riley Michael and Luke Brown were injured during football season, and other experienced wrestlers did not return.
“We have experience in some places, (and) we have inexperience in some places,” Frank said. “We're trying to catch everybody up and split the squad somewhat so that the experienced kids don't get bored from us teaching the basics. We are teaching the basics in a lot of cases so the younger kids can catch up.”
Fox Chapel and Riverview competed at the Hampton Dawg Duals, with Fox Chapel winning four of five matches and Riverview going 2-3.
Walters said having a younger roster — in contrast to last season, when Highlands had 11 seniors — means more hands-on teaching and different ideas, like his summer approach.
“Last year's group, I think we rebuilt off a lot of them,” senior Lucas Lamer said. “They were like the building blocks for us. This year, I think, especially me being young last year … I kind of took what they taught me and kind of put it into this year. I already notice a big change in myself this year.
“Just the way I am on the mat, I'm a lot faster than I was last year. I move a lot better. I see things I didn't really see last year. But the group we have this year is a great group of kids, really young, but they're buying into the process.”
A former wrestler at perennial WPIAL champion Burrell, Walters has worked steadily to increase participation and progress at Highlands since becoming coach — when he had seven wrestlers and the future of the program was in jeopardy.
Unlike many competitors in Class AAA, Highlands doesn't have a junior high program, but Walters works with younger wrestlers and is involved with the elementary school program. Many of his wrestlers from those levels are now part of the Highlands varsity or will be soon.
“I've got a soft spot in my heart for this group now and the next couple groups coming because when I joined Highlands from Burrell, this was the first set of young kids that I coached,” he said. “They're finally starting to come up through, and within the next two to three years, we're going to be good. … It's going to happen. It's definitely something I've been waiting on for a long time. I expect to have very high expectations next year.”
Returners like Lamer are noticing a different energy during practice, and it picked up during the Carrick Duals.
“The younger guys got a lot of energy, and so when I'm wrestling (and) I'm tired, they've got more energy than me so they can push me, make me go farther,” sophomore DaShawn Holley said. “I can teach them a lot of things they don't know, and they can teach me a lot of things as well.
“(The team is) going to be headed in the right direction. I think by the time I'm a senior, we'll be one of the best in the WPIAL. The young guys right now, they're very talented, and I think they'll do well in the future.”
The difference between wrestling in Class AA, Highlands' former home, and Class AAA, where the Golden Rams moved in the WPIAL's 2016 realignment, is “huge,” Walters said. Highlands has a smaller roster than most of its Section 3 opponents, including Wednesday night's opponent, Seneca Valley.
But Walters believes the program is heading in the right direction.
“I can't wait to see what happens next year,” he said. “I can't wait to see what happens at the end of this year with the way these guys performed.”