‘A dream come true’ as Mack youth wrestling begins new era

Submitted photos – McKinleyville youth wrestling coach Virgil Moorehead coaches some young wrestlers at the program’s new facility at The Club in McKinleyville.

By Ray Hamill — Youth wrestling is alive and well here on the North Coast and continues to provide a strong foundation for the sport in the H-DNL.

And the facilities are getting better too.

The McKinleyville youth program, which has been in existence on and off since 1998, recently moved into the new state-of-the-art room at The Club for Fitness on Central and is giving a whole new generation of young grapplers the opportunity to develop an interest in the sport.

And for Virgil Moorehead, who coaches both the high school and youth programs in McKinleyville, the new facilities are a dream come true.

“It’s pretty special,” he said. “It was a lifelong dream to be able to do this. At the high school it was pretty crowded, and now I have two full mats.”

Not only does the extra room help with coaching the youngsters, but it also allows Moorehead to host some big-time clinics.

“Having (the program) there at the new facility, I can bring in some high caliber coaches for clinics,” he said.

He already has.

Stanford coach Rob Koll came to McKinleyville in the summer of 2021 to host a three-day clinic at The Club, and Moorehead plans on hosting three or four clinics a year moving forward.

The new facility also allows Mack youth wrestling to become a year-round program and expand to three days a week, with the young grapplers returning to practice this week after a short winter break.

In addition to the regular Tuesday and Thursday sessions, Moorehead will begin an open mat session on Sundays, as well as adding Taekwondo.

“We want to vary it up for the kids,” said the longtime local coach, who added “We have a lot of high school kids working out now. It’s a positive place for them to go.”

The program is open to grapplers aged 5 and older, with half hour sessions for the younger kids and more advanced classes for the older competitors.

Moorehead, who has been coaching at Mack High for 26 years, has also been reunited with some old friends thanks to the new facility.

“The gym is kind of special because I got some kids whose fathers are old enough that they wrestled for me with the program when I dreamed of starting the gym,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s pretty special. Some of them are in their 30s now and when they wrestled for me I remember they used to always tease me ‘when’s the new gym coming coach? When’s the new gym coming?’”

Stanford coach Rob Koll coaches some young local wrestlers during his clinic in McKinleyville.

The new facility is another indication of how the sport continues to thrive on the North Coast and just the latest chapter in what has been a long and proud tradition here.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, legendary local coach Frank Cheek built a national championship program at Humboldt State (now Cal Poly Humboldt), and that laid a strong foundation for the sport going forward.

This year, College of the Redwoods will bring back its men’s team for the first time in four decades, while also adding a women’s team for the first time ever

At the high school level, more and more girls are taking up the sport in recent years, with more and more opportunities for them opening up at the collegiate level.

Just as important, the sport is now stronger than ever at the youth level here on the North Coast.

“The youth program has really grown,” Moorehead said. “It all began way back in 1984 or 1985 with the Burly Redwood Stickers. That was the first youth program in the area, with Burt Van Duzer. And it’s grown from there. We now have seven (youth) clubs.”

The Del Norte youth program is among the largest in the state, featuring as many as 110 young wrestlers recently, according to Morehead, while Arcata High head coach Cass Bell has a growing youth program at the Institute of Combat in Arcata and there are now three youth clubs in the Hoopa area, which has long been a hotbed of talent for the sport.

“The level of wrestling is pretty strong here,” said Moorehead, who wrestled for Cheek at Humboldt State in the late 70s and early 80s.

And he’s hoping to see the Jacks follow in CR’s footsteps and bring their program back.

“We’re still working on that,” said Moorehead, who has offered the Jacks the use of The Club’s room to get the program started.

Many local wrestling fans believe it would be a natural move for the sport here on the North Coast, especially with so many youth wrestlers here.

“I think it’s the greatest sport for kids,” Moorehead said. “Like (legendary wrestler and coach) Dan Gable said, ‘once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’”

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