North/East Xtra: Highlands' program survives

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In years to come, Grant Walters may become known as the coach who saved Highlands High School wrestling.

But Walters, a 2006 graduate of Burrell High School, will not take the credit.

"Nolan Wise deserves the credit," said Walters, referring to one of six current seniors who made up last year's squad.

The past few years have been a struggle for the Highlands varsity program.

Last season, the athletic department decided not to compete in a section schedule due to lack of participation. But the program was kept alive, as its participants wrestled in tournaments.

"The varsity team consisted of six juniors and one missed the season with an injury, while another suffered an injury prior to the postseason tournaments," said Walters, who spent the past four years as the elementary coach at Highlands. "The other four qualified for the WPIAL tournament and one even made it to the [PIAA] Southwest Regional."

The wrestler who qualified for the regional tournament was Nolan Wise, who placed second in Class AA Section 3 and fifth in the WPIAL at 138 pounds.

When the season ended, varsity coach Logan Downes stepped down, which had many thinking the program would be eliminated. That's when Walters and Wise came to the rescue.

"Nolan came to me and begged me to be the varsity coach," said Walters, who had coached Wise previously. "He told me there were enough athletes interested in keeping the program alive. I promised Nolan I would apply for the varsity position if he had enough kids interested in wrestling."

Wise shocked Walters when he came back the next day with a list that had 27 signatures of students who wanted to wrestle.

"Most of the kids who signed are sophomores and freshmen, but that's not a problem," Walters said. "We have six solid seniors who all have varsity experience and a bunch of younger kids who want to learn."

Walters applied for the job and is now working with both the varsity and elementary programs.

"The reason I stayed with the elementary program is that I have two sons and I want to continue coaching them," said Walters, referring to 10-year-old Jrake and 6-year old Aiden. "George Henry has agreed to be the head elementary coach and I will be the assistant."

Walters has also brought on a pair of Highlands alumni to be his varsity assistants.

"Cody Pringle [a 2011 graduate] and Bill Orris [a 2005 graduate] have agreed to be my varsity assistants," Walters said. "It's nice to have a couple Highlands alumni to work with."

Highlands will not wrestle a section schedule this year, however, Walters has scheduled nine dual meets and four tournaments for the Golden Rams to compete in.

"We have one home match scheduled against Greensburg Salem for our senior night," Walters said. "The rest of our matches and tournaments are on the road. We're even getting new uniforms. We're ready to roll."

Walters believes the strength of this year's team will be its senior leadership.

"It's good to have senior leadership," Walters said. "These kids are the ones who will put Highlands wrestling on the map again."

Walters began his coaching career as a midget football coach with his father, Mike.

"My dad passed away in March after coaching the Highlands Hornets midget team for 28 years," Walters said.

"He taught more than just coaching. He taught me the importance of organized sports and how they can mold a young student-athlete.

"He also taught me the importance of keeping my grades up. He's my inspiration to continue coaching."

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