It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
That’s the mantra that Mat Monsters Head Coach Alex Wray preaches do his young athletes each practice.
Coach Wray has spent the last two years building a youth wrestling program, and the excitement and success surrounding the program is growing.
“When we first started two years ago, people laughed at us. People counted us out from the start. Now, everybody wants to join the Mat Monsters,” said Coach Wray. “Everybody sees what direction we are going in. We’re going straight to the top.
Last season, the Mat Monsters had five state champions, four second place finishers and four third place finishers in. As a team, the Mat Monsters finished in the top 10 in every state tournament they took part in.
With summer here, the Mat Monsters are not taking any time off. The youngsters are already back on the mat and hard at work.
“We know what we need to do to get to the top. This is not a seasonal sport, we are doing this year round,” Wray said. “If you love something, you have to put forth the effort. It’s a team sport but it’s an individual sport too.
Coach Wray also sees the Mat Monsters as a way to provide guidance, as well as highlight the importance of friendship, family and devotion to a sport.
“God put me here in Ashe County to do this. All the blood, sweat and tears you put into this sport and life, you get out of it. There is nothing you can’t do when you put your mind to it,” said Wray.
“Wrestling has changed lives. We have brought bullies in that aren’t bullies anymore. We protect the weak, we don’t bully. If I hear of anyone bullying, they are off the team,” added Wray.
Currently, the Mat Monsters average anywhere from 25 to 35 kids that show up for practices, which take place on Monday night, Thursday night and Sunday night from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. Ages range from elementary school all the way through high school. Coach Wray wants that number to rise.
“I want to invite the most aggressive, toughest kids I can find to come out and try this sport in Ashe County,” said Wray. “People develop a passion and love for this sport and I am one of those. It’s a great way to find out if this sport is for you.”
There are club teams and AAU wrestling teams all across the state, but most all of them cost between $100 and $250 to join.
Mat Monster wrestlers pay no money to be a part of the club. Instead, they work hard on the mat and in the community. This past winter, almost every member of the Mat Monster squad came out to help Bald Mountain Baptist Church deliver wood to people’s houses to deal with the cold weather.
Coach Wray also makes sure each young grappler has all the gear they need to compete, even if parents are struggling in the tough economic times.
“If you can’t afford shoes or headgear, I will help out. Someone helped me get somewhere in life, I’m doing the same for these kids,” Wray said.
As the Mat Monsters continue to grow, the team plans on hosting their first wrestling tournament this winter at Ashe County Middle School and are hoping to expand their community service activities.
*Nathan Ham can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or followed on Twitter @NathanHam87