By Brian Jerzak
With numbers beginning to dwindle, the Marshall wrestling program was starting to slide. Although never considered a state power, the Tigers had competitive teams and some solid wrestlers, but around the time head coach Justin Bouwman took over, the program was starting a decline. To start the program on the road back, Bouwman threw himself into the youth program, and once the youth got some footing, there was no stopping them. Tigers’ wrestling has reached a level never seen in the programs’ history.
“It was about getting out and being seen – talking to high school kids, talking to junior high kids,” Bouwman said. “I was getting in with the youth program. I had a young son, so it was easy for me to jump in right away and it was easy to put my face and brand on things. I think the parents liked that I was involved and through word of mouth people started to get involved. We started to get numbers in the youth program, and it just kept growing.”
Before he could get seen in Marshall, Bouwman started his wrestling career as a kid in Iowa.
“I started wrestling in second grade,” Bouwman said. “Pretty much every boy in the area wrestled. It was the sport to do at the time at my high school.”
If two thirty-win seasons at West Lyon High School are considered average, Bouwman’s high school career – in his words – was average.
“I had a couple of thirty-win seasons but only qualified for the state tournament once, and I didn’t place. I got recruited to wrestle at Southwest Minnesota State.”
In college, Bouwman decided to go into teaching, and the coaching piece followed.
“I started helping with some youth programs in Marshall and Minneota when I first got into teaching,” Bouwman explained. “It was something I found out I wanted to do. I like seeing kids have success and like seeing kids able to learn from failures and from the good things that happen in wrestling. I like how wrestling can improve people off the mat.”
Bouwman was an assistant under former Marshall head coach Cal Jeremiason, but after a year his position was cut. He landed in nearby Minneota for four years.
“My role (as an assistant wrestling coach) was to give technique to kids. I had just graduated from college, so I had some things to offer them. I was able to give them a different look at things. Sometimes giving guys a different way to look at things makes things stick.”
Bouwman drew coaching inspiration from coaches from various levels and from different sports.
“My junior high and JV wrestling coach, Eric Fiech was always pushing me to do better and wanted to get the most out of me,” Bouwman explained. “On the wrestling mat, on the football field, and in the classroom, his message seemed to stick. Even today when I go back and see him, he still wants to make sure things are going the right way. I coached junior high football with (Minneota wrestling coach) Joel Skillings. Seeing how he handled kids, getting the most out of them and how the kids hung on every word he said stuck with me. My biggest influence was Mike Sterner from SMSU. I wasn’t an above average wrestler, but he believed in me, and he still is in my corner today. He is constantly encouraging me and helping me.”
When Jeremiason resigned, Bouwman applied for the head job.
“The program was kind of fading. Kids really weren’t interested in wrestling. We had a core group of kids that stuck together and when those kids started to graduate the numbers started to dwindle. At that time, Marshall had picked up hockey and kids were trying that. We were hurting for numbers.”
Bouwman set out to get his program and his face out into the area. But he would need help.
“I got a lot of help from some great youth coaches. They pushed the sport in the community. With the booster club, we ran a lot of free two-day camps right at the end of school just to get kids to see what it is like and how much fun it can be. We would play lots of games that deal with wrestling where the kids don’t realize they were actually working on wrestling skills. We came up with an Ironman program. If you went to six youth tournaments, you got an Ironman t-shirt. Our school colors are black and orange, but we went with the brightest colors we could find. I went with lime green one year, bright yellow another year – anything to get it to stand out when these little guys go to school. We did anything we could to get Tigers’ wrestling in front of people.”
Even with all the work getting the word out, the program re-build was going to take some time. The varsity results did not turn around right away.
“I wondered if I was giving the kids enough,” Bouwman admitted. “Were we not doing enough technique? Were we not doing enough weight training or summer wrestling? Should I be doing more? That was the biggest worry of mine. Was I doing enough for the kids to help them become successful.”
He might not have known it at the time, but the efforts – especially at the youth level – were paying off.
“We get them to practice hard for a half hour or forty-five minutes, and then we play games with them. For them, it turns into fun and the more fun they are having, the more likely they are to want to keep coming back.”
The youth program has progressed to a point where they hold three practices, beginner, intermediate and upper level.
Soon Bouwman could feel the program was on the upswing.
“Three or four years ago our work in the youth levels started to pay off,” Bouwman told The Guillotine. “Our youth team started to have success. They started to win a lot of duals and started qualifying for NYWA state. We made posters for them and put them up in the school to keep the program on kids’ minds. Once we got the numbers in the youth program and got some really good dads that wanted to be a part of that, the program started taking off.”
The work started with the coaching staff, but the program would not have progressed without those dads and other outside help.
“With the booster program we tried to do as much for the kids as we could,” Bouwman said. “We were having youth tournaments. We started to scholarship some of the youth kids to get to go to different tournaments whose families couldn’t afford it. Parents were willing to take another family’s son to a tournament to get them into competition. The parents and the booster club started to see what they were doing was successful, and it kept growing.”
When Bouwman first started, Marshall had seventeen kids grade 7-12 out for wrestling. Now they have forty. The youth program used to have forty or fifty kids, and now they have 85 to 100 kids.
Mainly because of space, one area the program has not progressed is with a junior high program. Once the kids hit seventh grade, they are in the varsity room.
“It is a little intense for the seventh graders right away,” the Tigers’ head coach said. “We try to get involved in a lot of the 9th-grade league events, so they can see more of their level. If we can get them through seventh grade, we’ve got them hooked.”
To make sure the young kids weren’t thrown to the wolves too soon, Bouwman sometimes had to sacrifice saving team points in the short term with the long-term development of the kids and the program.
“We knew we were going to take some losses early. Maybe we could use a young guy in the lineup to fill an empty spot because the opponent’s person at that weight is about the same level. But a lot of times it was we are going to take some lumps because we don’t want to have them out for two years and have them be done because all they did was get beat up for two years.”
In the varsity wrestling room, the coaching staff stresses togetherness.
“We want them to be there for each other. We remind the kids it is like your second family. I think that propelled us this year. Someone would get beat, and the next person would step up. They were there for each other. When somebody got an upset, the bench would be jumping up and down. They are in it for each other and not just themselves.”
Like the youth program – there is still an element of fun in every varsity practice.
“Our warmups are pretty loose, and then we will get after it for an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes. Then we will throw some sort of game in there where the winning team gets out of pushups or something. Sometimes – when time allows – we might throw in a game of kickball or something – just something to let them relax and have some fun.”
Bouwman is aware of the wrestling grind; therefore, fun has become a regular part of Tigers’ practice.
“I want kids to work hard, be there for each other and have fun. If you are not having fun, wrestling is hard. The more fun our kids are having, the more they succeed.”
During competition – like their head coach before them – the Tigers are a pinning team. They like to run bars and halves and cradles.
“It stems back to when we didn’t have the numbers. We would tell the guys if you have the chance to pin a guy you better pin him to give us an opportunity to win. That seemed to carry over to now.”
Bouwman has been able to carry over his primary assistant coach for the past several years.
“My right-hand man is Ethan Hoppe,” the Tigers’ head coach said. “He has been with me for eight years. He student-taught in my classroom. He came from St. James. Right now, we don’t have to ask questions of each other a lot. We usually know what the other is thinking. We are always on the same page. David Wingert has been with us for two years. He is the former head coach at Quad County. He has been a huge help with technique. Coach Hoppe and I are upper weight wrestlers, and it has been nice to have someone who wrestled in the lower weights. Our youth head coach is Dave Kraft. He pours his heart and soul into the youth program and drives those numbers for us.”
Along with the numbers in the program, the communities’ support of the program has grown. The fan base should be watching a team next season that will continue to ascend.
“We only graduated one senior,” Bouwman said. “We will have four returning state tournament entrants coming back. We have a young group that has been coming up through the program that will be getting their opportunity to show what they’ve got.”
“Jackson Hughes, Zach Felcyn, Elijah Sterner and Zach Stahl will be our captains and have been around for a long time,” Bouwman continued. “Then we have – we call them ‘the twins’ – Hsa Law Eh and Hsa Khee Lar. They are returning state entrants. Jaiden Bahr is a leader for us up top. Those guys are our big guns. We have eighteen of the nineteen guys from the section team – that is huge. It gives us a giant opportunity to be successful.”
The Marshall program has made historic strides.
“As we keep developing this program, we keep surpassing milestones,” Bouwman explained. “Some of those have been big for the kids. Going to the section finals as a team, two years in a row; Marshall had never been to the section finals – that has never been done. Having a twenty-win season as a team broke a school record.”
School records in the Marshall Tigers’ wrestling program are no longer safe. The program is growing. The program is improving and is showing no signs of stopping.
This article first appeared in the June 5th, 2018 issue of The Guillotine Newsmagazine. Find out how to subscribe to The Guillotine Newsmagazine.