By Ray Hamill — North Coast sports fans know all about Cass Bell the MMA fighter, but what he’s achieving as a local youth wrestling coach is arguably even more impressive.
Bell’s Institute of Combat team continues to defy the odds against larger and more heavily funded programs from bigger cities, including a remarkable performance last weekend at the Rocky Mountain Nationals in Las Vegas, where his young wrestlers placed sixth as a team in the folkstyle competition out of 287 teams from all over the nation.
His influence is being felt by a number of young athletes here on the North Coast, including 13-year-old Southern Humboldt native Aidan Ayers, who took home the Rocky Mountain National Rookie of the Year award after another outstanding showing last weekend.
Ayers was one of 10 IOC wrestlers to make the trip, capping an incredible debut year on the mats.
“With all the work he’s been putting in, he’s going to be a great athlete in anything he does,” Bell said of Ayers, who also plays youth football for the Ferndale Mustangs and is a weight-lifting enthusiast. “He puts in 100 percent.”
Bell added that he’s “one of the toughest kids that I know. He got thrown in with the Sharks at Institute of Combat and survived.”
Ayers won the prestigious national Rookie of the Year award — which is handed out to just one youth wrestler aged 7-15 in the entire country — after taking first place in the rookie division in 12 of the 14 tournaments he has travelled to over the past year.
He has a record of 50-2 in that time, and his father Bruce says Bell has been a huge influence on the young wrestler’s development.
“Aidan loves Cass,” Bruce said. “It’s just wild what he’s been able to do with Aidan. He’s got him in insane wrestling shape.”
Aidan got into wrestling after Ferndale youth football coach JD Braud suggested he join Bell’s gym in the fall of 2019.
“JD came up to us after a football game and he said ‘you need to have this kid wrestle, he’s super tough,’” Bruce said. “And from the get-go, Aidan has jumped into it as hard as he could.”
Father and son have shown their dedication to the cause by traveling two-and-a-half hours back and forth from Fruitland Ridge to Arcata three times a week for much of the past year, while also competing regularly at tournaments all over the West Coast.
“Just his dedication (has impressed me),” Bell said. “They have to drive so far just to get to practice, and he always wants to work hard.”
Aidan’s dedication has also helped the team, giving Bell’s son Kaidan a viable training partner.
Kaidan is another IOC wrestler who continues to impress and also had a big showing at last weekend’s tournament, including taking a first-place in his Jiu Jitsu bracket.
“They all did really, really well,” Cass said. “I was really proud of all of them. It is the biggest tournament we’ve ever gone to.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, the younger Bell, 12, is one of the IOC’s top youth wrestlers and was influential in the remarkable team showing after competing in four different brackets on the same day.
“He probably had 15 matches that day,” Cass said, adding that “he’s grown tremendously” as a competitor and that having Aidan as a training partner has helped.
“They’ve clicked,” Cass said of the duo.
They weren’t the only two to impress last weekend, with Maureen Baxter and Donald Hostler both turning in game-changing performances.
Baxter, known as MoMo, is one of the team’s youngest competitors and had a clutch, confidence-building performance while battling back from an eight-point deficit to win her division.
“She was so happy, you could see it on her facial expression,” Cass said. “That (performance) just turned her whole mindset around. She’s a whole other wrestler now. She finally jumped that hurdle. I was stoked for her.”
Hostler, 13, is one of the team’s big success stories, overcoming bigger and more experienced wrestlers for two top-four finishes at the prestigious tournament.
“He’s going up against kids who are 15 and two feet taller than him and he’s giving it his all,” Cass said. “He doesn’t always win, but he never gives up and he’s always fighting to the end. I was just so proud of this kid.”
Taylor Bell also took home a belt from the prestigious tournament, to go with four top-three finishes, while Justin Osburne had a first place and two fourths.
“He had some pretty tough matches,” Cass said of Osburne. “That was pretty awesome for him to be able to do that.”
Tanner Baxter also had a first-place and a second-place finish, while Brady Rains placed fifth in his first-ever tournament and did so in the open division instead of competing in the rookie division.
And rounding out a big weekend for the team, Bowden Barter had two firsts and a sixth-place finish, while Cassius Barter had a third-place finish.
“All the kids did great,” Cass said.