When he began recounting the pieces that went into Cleveland's amazing state wrestling championship run, coach Eric Phillips started with Heath Eslinger.
"He brought me here. It was part of his vision five years with me at the middle school," Phillips said. "Heath had the program in place."
When Heath left Cleveland two years ago to become the head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga he recommended Phillips as his successor, and he left him a good support group that included former Blue Raiders coaches Duane Shriver and Al Miller, ex-Blue Raider wrestler Thomas Queen and Josh Boskin.
"Al and Coach Shriver ran this program and Miller has more wrestling knowledge in his pinky finger than all of us combined," Phillips said.
It was first Eslinger and then Phillips that based the Blue Raiders' program on a strong commitment to self, to school and to team but it was a philosophy that Shriver and Miller embraced years ago.
"You want to talk about a perfect love, a true blue-blood. Those two guys and I had philosophical differences but not once did they complain or roll their eyes," Phillips said. "They ran this program and here Al is doing whatever he can from keeping up with the JV to team stats to being our medical man. And then you look at Josh Boskin, who had been an assistant. He stepped aside and took over our kids club program to make room for Jake Yost, and when Jake came in he said, 'I'll do whatever you want; run the JV or whatever.' It has been an outstanding group to work with."
As the team and its supporters gathered late Saturday evening to celebrate in Franklin, Phillips had a chance to both enjoy and reflect on the state title that some in Cleveland would call miraculous.
"It was simply an amazing team effort. These guys weren't winning for themselves. Isaiah Nichols went up there planning to win a state championship and lost in the first round. He kept coming back as did kids like Joel Simpkins. Our heavyweight [Jordan Hines] came back to beat three people who had beaten him during the season," Phillips said. "They weren't doing it for themselves for the team. We kept telling the kids if they started thinking about themselves they'd get scared but if they focused on their love of Cleveland and their teammates they wouldn't get scared. They fought for each other and they believed in each other and their coaches."
The Blue Raiders lost their first two matches in Friday's semifinal and then reeled off 38 wins in their next 41 matches.
"It was like a snowball. We kept winning match after match that some people felt maybe we shouldn't be winning but the kids were all leaving it on the mat," said Phillips, whose team ended a 17-year losing streak to Bradley Central.
And this year Soddy-Daisy, which finished third in the state behind Cleveland and Bradley, had bested the Blue Raiders four times.
"Bradley [Central] and Soddy-Daisy are great teams and they may have been better than us, but we told the kids we were too good to keep losing over and over. It wasn't about a rivalry or getting even. Our kids believed they were worthy of being champions."
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...
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