Since its inception in 2004, the Cocke County High School wrestling program has come a long way from its humble beginnings.
Over 17 years longtime coach Randy West has worked tirelessly to build a winning culture in Newport, Tenn. He’s been to the state tournament before and watched his competitors achieve at the highest level, but the success the program has had this year has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his coaching career.
“In 2004, when I started the program, we were searching for a mat and had about seven kids come out for the team,” West recalled. “I was having to explain from the start that we didn’t have ring ropes. It was a totally new thing here.”
So when senior Jacob King become the program’s first male to earn a state medal in Saturday’s TSSAA Class AAA State Tournament, it became a fitting end to a year that’ll be remembered for a long time by a program that’s still in its early years compared to those around it.
“Personally, this is probably the greatest goal I’ve ever completed,” King said. “Since I arrived on campus I knew that I’d have to set goals and push myself to achieve all I wanted to. For me to go into my senior year and complete such a large goal has meant a lot to me.”
King won his first two matches of the day, both on falls, setting him up in the semifinals and putting himself in position to earn a top 10 spot and medal on the day. Although he suffered defeat in the semifinals and his day wrapped up in a loss in a match for fifth place, the three-sport Cocke County athlete had again left his mark on a program he’s poured everything into since his first day on campus.
But for King, Saturday’s triumph wasn’t just about putting a fitting end to an illustrious career. Instead, his focus was on the team and the future of the program.
“The night before, all that was going through my head was wanting to build a foundation for future wrestlers at Cocke County,” King said. “It’s become a big sport in the south the last three or four years, and it shows by having some of the best wrestlers in the nation here in east Tennessee.
“I didn’t go down there to do this for myself. I wanted to do it for my community so that generations after me could have more athletic opportunities.”
Although he’ll always be remembered for years to come as the program’s first male medalist on the state’s biggest stage, it’s the impact of his accomplishment he hopes that will carry on towards the continued growth and success of the program.
King wasn’t alone at Saturday’s state championships, of course.
Cocke County’s two transfers, Dylan Winchell and Hunter McKenna, also made their TSSAA State Tournament debuts.
McKenna opened the day with a 13-11 win by decision, but suffered a 4-2 loss by decision in his next match, putting him in the consolation bracket. His day was done after falling in his first consolation matchup.
Winchell fell to the consolation bracket after the first round, after getting paired with the state’s No. 1 seed and eventual champion of the 126-lb. weight class Trey Bates — a senior at Beech High School.
He’d go on to win his first match in the consolation bracket, a 53-second fall over Brentwood’s Arash Yazdani, before his day ended in a loss by fall in a match that went over four minutes.
The two transfers from New York helped elevate the program in more ways than just adding to Cocke County’s state tournament roster in 2021. Their contributions gave the team a boost in overall wins on the season, and even gave a boost to King in their short time together.
“Dylan and Hunter helped me out a lot with some of their techniques and styles of wrestling,” King said. “It meant a lot to me that we all three made it to state, but I know it meant even more for them. It’s difficult to make state in New York.
“For them to have the opportunity to come down here and do it after not being able to compete for a whole year, I think it meant a lot for all three of us.”
While McKenna — like King — wrestled his final high school match in Saturday’s tournament, Winchell will return to CCHS next year with a chance to repeat, and build off his efforts from the 2021 season.
Winchell will also be a new centerpiece for the program to build around, much like King had been for the last two seasons.
“He’s become a part of the family down here, and I think he’s going to be an asset for this team next year,” West said. “Success builds success, and when you’ve got guys in the wrestling room that are at the level of what we had this year, it raises the bar for the future.
“These guys all pushed each other this year, and that’s important in building a winning culture. We hate to lose Hunter and Jacob after this year, but by normal standards — where the TSSAA takes top four of each weight class out of the region — we would have had more guys qualify for state this year.
“With Dylan coming back with those guys, the program in general is continuing to get stronger year over year.”
With talent returning after as successful of a year the CCHS wrestling program has enjoyed this season, West has hopes that 2021 becomes the seminal moment the program looks back to as the turning point of when it became one of the best in the region, if not the state.
“This is not the end, this is just the beginning of where we can go with the program,” West said. “It’s all reliant on the success of our youth programs, though. That’s true for any sport. The more we can get them involved early in athletics, the more our high school teams will flourish down the road.”