HAMILTON, Ill. -- It's been an adventure for the first year West Hancock Wrestling Club.
The club features 34 wrestlers from age five to 13, and 11 coaches. Most wrestlers and coaches are from Illinois, but a few are from Iowa.
With the number of youth who have stuck with it, it's been a successful first year, with team awards and several individual tournament champions.
"We've done real well for a first year club," said coach Tom Schilson. "Our best finish was sixth place at the nine tournaments we've attended so far. We won a sportsmanship award at a tournament in West Burlington."
"Hardly anyone has quit," said coach Chad Gilpin. "The numbers keep increasing."
Schilson said the idea for the club has been around for a while. The new co-op in football between Hamilton, Warsaw and Nauvoo-Colusa put the club in motion, seeing a chance to prove that the interest level throughout the three school districts was enough to bring back a high school wrestling program. Most programs in the county ended by the late 1980s, and wrestling was over by the mid-90s.
"Through the kids' club, we hope to prove there's enough interest to do that," said Schilson. "I'm pleased. I expected around 20. We're sitting right around 35. I'm almost scared for next year with the numbers I'm hearing are going to come out."
Wrestlers are mainly from Hamilton and Warsaw school districts. No youth from Nauvoo-Colusa joined. The rest of the wrestlers and coaches are from Keokuk.
The team practices on Tuesday and Thursday nights in the junior high gym at Hamilton High School. The three mats barely hold all the wrestlers. Instruction in specific moves and situations is interspersed between live wrestling.
"We keep them moving all the time," said Gilpin.
The children of coaches Tom and Tim Schilson and coach David Sadeghi, and some of the ones from Keokuk, have previous wrestling experience at other local clubs. The rest are beginners.
Gilpin, one of the few coaches without children in the club, said the younger wrestlers are the biggest challenge.
"I knew it would be tricky to get them to listen," he said. "They're kids. If they aren't having fun, they shouldn't be here. I think they're improving more quickly than I thought they would."
This is Gilpin's first coaching job after spending 15 years away from wrestling.
"I enjoyed wrestling. I thought if there were this many kids in the community who wanted to learn how to do it, the least I could do was make sure they knew how to do it correctly. I enjoy seeing their progress. They have fun when they learn something like this."
The learning curve for the beginners was helped by the large number of coaches.
"We're fortunate to have so many coaches," said Schilson. "Most nights, we've had a coach per two kids. When you get the five year olds, they require a lot of attention."
The coaches have plenty of experience. Many of them are former wrestlers at Hamilton. Six of the 11 coaches own state wrestling medals.
The tournaments group wrestlers of the same age. They are weighed and then bracketed. The three major divisions are bantam for age eight and under; midget for wrestlers ages 8, 9 and 10; and novice for ages 10, 11 and 12. Ten year olds are moved between midget and novice depending on weight.
"At regionals, it is a designated weight class," said Schilson. "You have to choose a weight class to wrestle in. Once you start the state series, they do things a little differently."
West Hancock has attended local tournaments in Macomb, Keokuk, West Burlington, Fort Madison, Camp Point and Quincy. Not everyone has competed at a tournament yet.
"When the parents think they're ready, they wrestle," said Gilpin. "If you aren't ready and go out and have a bad experience, then you might not want to do it anymore."
Club tournaments can be large, with some hosting 500 wrestlers.
"You can literally wrestle all year round like anything else anymore," said Schilson.
The club began practices in November and plans to attend tournaments through April.
The rules and moves are the same as the folk wrestling at the high school level. The younger wrestlers have a reduced time of three one-minute periods.
"For the little guys, three minutes is a long time out there," said Schilson.
Gilpin said he initially tried to teach several moves, but realized cutting back to fewer moves and emphasizing movement was better.
"It's difficult to get them to be aggressive without getting mad," said Gilpin. "I realized right away that teaching them 20 moves wasn't going to help. It was better if they had three to five good moves and to teach them non-stop moving. The matches are only three minutes long.
They know the moves, but it's hard to get them to do the moves in front of the crowd. Wrestling in front of a couple hundred people is a first-time experience for them."
Gilpin is excited for the future of wrestling.
"Hamilton has never had a program like this," he said. "In four years or so, you're going to see the best high school team they've ever had because they'll have all these guys with experience."