The History of West Ottawa Wrestling
West Ottawa wrestling launched its very first wrestling team in 1962. Coached by Latin teacher Peter Roon, it was a small club set up to try and compete in the already competitive Grand Valley League. Though they won their very first home match against Byron Center (35-15) in front of 150 fans, a winning season would still be elusive to the Panthers for quite some time. Records don't state the reasoning why, but the club seemed to only last one year. It wasn't until the 1965-66 school year that the Panthers got their very own varsity program. They were led by Iowa native and newly hired history teacher Sidney Huitema. Huitema, a former coach of the state championship team from Charlotte, MI, was a stern disciplinarian that found little success with a varsity program. Regardless, he set up a rigorous diet plan and training schedule and insisted that cheerleaders were at each meet to cheer on the varsity and junior varsity.
Bruce Ming was the second head coach at West Ottawa and reaped similar results as Huitema, despite having much less formal coaching experience. As an elementary PE teacher at Beechwood elementary, Ming would spend his time with the varsity program after school. In his short tenure, he had several state qualifiers, some of the first in school history. West Ottawa wrestling had a slow start, as they didn't get their first winning season until 1979 (competing in the incredibly competitive OK Red Conference).
Our first state champions
Nadolsky's tenure as head coach marks a new era of West Ottawa wrestling. The 1990s bolstered its first state champion with Rob Renes, an individual state title from James Tietema, and two titles from Kasey Nadolsky. Wrestlers enjoyed his laid-back approach, which they found to be more fun. Numbers improved again, despite the team as a whole having much success. Under his watch, the middle school program was reinstated, as it had been disbanded for several years due to low numbers. Youth and middle school wrestlers at this point could only wrestle freestyle before high school. Having a feeder program (under the watchful eye of former head coach John Merryman) back at West Ottawa only strengthened the team.
Eventually, the team was turned over to Eric McCourt, a former All-American wrestler from Ferris State. McCourt's wealth of knowledge for the sport only made the technical side more straightforward for the team to understand. He required that all athletes write down their goals and share them with the rest of the team to demonstrate accountability. Creating a more rounded team, the Panthers won their first district title in 1998 (with Nadolsky again at the helm) coupled with an additional team district title in 2001. 2001 also marks when Kasey's little brother, Spencer, also won a state title at 215lbs. The Panthers were not where they wanted to be, but they were inching closer every year.
A New Era
McCourt stepped away from the program in 2005. In his stead was assistant Coach Yale Pope, the 8th head coach in school history. Pope was a former high school and college wrestler and had high hopes for the program. He envisioned a strong team that competed for titles yearly. This mentality and effort made West Ottawa win two more district titles in 2010 and 2013. With Co-head coach Matt Powell (former all-American from Grand Valley), the program relied heavily on an aggressive and well-conditioned wrestling style. Sprints to exhaustion were a staple of each workout.
At the 50 year mark, West Ottawa gets their 10th head coach with Ryan Lancaster. Lancaster is the first alumni as a head coach for the Panthers. In his first year, the team was Academic All-State, a first in school history. A former All-American and athlete on the Olympic circuit, Lancaster has traveled worldwide for wrestling. A student of the sport hopes to bring an unorthodox training style based on other successful programs found globally.
The future is unclear for West Ottawa, but it looks as if it will continue to grow and move slower to its goal of becoming a nationally recognized program.