Times have changed and it’s so much more difficult to be a high school wrestling coach in Racine than it used to be.
Park coach Jon Burdick, for instance, is dealing with declining enrollment at his school. He’s dealing with a mentality among kids of today that if they don’t see instant gratification, they’ll simply walk away. He’s dealing with kids who have no way to get home after practice unless someone gives them a ride.
That’s just a few of the issues. Here’s another.
“Part of it is the lack of middle school athletic programs,” said the 35-year-old Burdick, a 2001 Park graduate who was a two-time state medalist. “Traveling around to some of these other competitions and talking to some of the coaches, when I tell them we don’t have a middle school program, their jaws drop. They’re like, ‘Well, what do you do?’ “
That’s a question Burdick has been answering quite well in the last few years. After winning two dual meets in his first five years as Park’s coach, the Panthers have gone 9-3 the last two seasons.
The fruits of his labor have reached another plateau so far this season. Park is 5-0 overall and 4-0 in the Southeast Conference. Furthermore, Burdick’s program has developed success stories such as juniors Angel Rodriguez (22-6 at 106 pounds), Joseph Mendoza (24-2 at 120), Dashawn Bolton (21-7 at 138) and Jarrell Campbell (20-3 at 195).
This comes one year after the graduated Tre Williams placed fourth at 285 pounds at the WIAA Division 1 State Tournament. He became the program’s first state medalist since Matt Hermes placed sixth in 2009.
On the 50th anniversary season of when Park won its second team state championship in three years, this program is coming back. And against considerable odds.
“Back in 2001, enrollment was a little over 2,100 students,” Burdick said. “Now, it’s between 1,400 and 1,500, but on any given day, you’ll probably see 1,200 at the most walking around the halls.
“And then there was the lack of work effort in some of our kids and not having that standard set earlier on in life where hard work pays off.”
But Burdick wasn’t going to allow this once proud program to fade away, even if he sometimes felt it was a futile situation.
When he took over the program in 2011, he inherited a roster of 33 wrestlers, 13 of which were seniors. And then the real drought came. There were just 23 wrestlers in the program the following year and opposing coaches were looking at Park on its schedule as an automatic dual meet victory.
What were the factors that revived Park’s program? Start with the continuity with Burdick’s assistants — Cameron Pope, Luke Adams and Adrian Langlois — who have been together since the start. Pope teaches at Park, enabling him to keep close tabs on his wrestlers (Burdick is a fifth-grade special education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School).
The collective mindset of those coaches was to stress simple daily progress with their wrestlers.
“When we focus solely on winning and losing and a kid doesn’t have success right away, nine times out of 10, those kids quit,” he said. “What we preach is, ‘Come in the room and get better every day. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. Go out and wrestle hard and the ‘W’s’ will follow that.’ “
Another step Burdick took was among his most inspired. He joined Park’s football staff as the freshman defensive backs coach in 2016 under new coach Andy Siegal as a way to identify potential wrestlers and then form a connection with them.
Among those he attracted to the program with this connection was Campbell and Dartrell Joshua (10-6 at 138 pounds). There have been several others.
“I knew it was important to get in front of some freshmen boys to start talking about wrestling,” Burdick said.
One who bought into Burdick’s sales pitch was Anthony Nielsen, a junior who is 12-8 at 160 pounds. He has never regretted his decision.
“He keeps everybody interested,” Nielsen said. “He doesn’t do the same thing every day. We work on new things. It’s a grind, it’s hard, but I do like the hard work.
“I’m way more in physical shape now. We have to clean the mats, roll them up. There’s just more of a responsibility being in wrestling than in any other sport.”
It’s all been coming together the last two seasons and it’s evident every afternoon during practice in the school’s old gymnasium. Kids who might not have had anything to do are finding an identity as Park wrestlers. They have forged a family atmosphere as Burdick and his staff push them through another demanding practice (five pushups are the punishment for mistakes). Burdick and an assistant even give between eight and 12 wrestlers a ride home after practice every day.
It’s been a hard-earned success story that continues evolving.
“This program is going to skyrocket,” Mendoza said. “We’re just starting and it’s going to grow. We help the freshman and then those freshmen will help the next freshmen. We just have to get everybody in the grind.”
Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter by calling 262-631-1703 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org